"Who Am I This Time? . . . " is a wonderful romp at OCT through December 7.
"Who Am I This Time? and other conundrums of love," an adaptation of early Kurt Vonnegut stories, by former Eugene resident Aaron Posner, has that rare status you hear about in theatre but rarely actually see - an extended run - with good reason; this show deserves to be seen by more people. So it will play an additional weekend beyond its originally scheduled slot; shows have been added for December 5, 6, and 7, at 7:30 pm curtain, and don't be late. Oregon Contemporary Theatre (OCT, formerly Lord-Leebrick Theatre) is known for its strict "no late seating" policy, which can be irritating and inconvenient if you're delayed, but if you've ever been in a theater where patrons are seated after the show has started, you will know how irritating and disruptive that can be, and OCT's patrons are, I think, mostly grateful for the policy. So it goes.
"Who Am I This Time? …" is a sort of mash-up of three stories Kurt Vonnegut published in the early '60's. Each of them has been variously adapted as an independent stand-alone piece of theater by other authors, but Aaron Posner's version weaves the three stories together. This could be considered daring, even arrogant and presumptuous, but it works on the stage, providing a through-line of connective tissue and character(s) that delivers a full-length evening of delightful theater, revealing a gentler, kinder, less cynical Kurt Vonnegut than the one many of my generation (and since) have come to know, love, and appreciate, being able to relate to that deeply ironic, resigned, sometimes bitter, yet perennially amused by the foibles of humankin, even the tragic ones, "voice" - so it goes. You expect a kind of olympian sympathy for flies trapped in amber, but scratch a cynic, they say, and you'll find a disillusioned idealist; these are the stories of a humanist idealist before he had allowed his Dresden demons their voice, in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), in the context of a war in Vietnam that he despised. (Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, was a neighbor and friend.) Check out Kurt's article from In These Times, May 10, 2004, at the age of 81, Cold Turkey.
Previous treatments of some of this material include a 1982 version for PBS' American Playhouse of "Who Am I This Time?" with Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon!
This production, deftly crafted by Brian Haimbach, reeks of hometown americana - it made me recall Our Town, Spoon River Anthology, Winesburg, Ohio, Prairie Home Companion - the down-home direct address of a narrator with an obvious affection for both his audience and his material - with a domestic history and interplay of characters in microcosm where the others have a broader canvas. That narrator, "Tom," opens the show with a customary "please turn off your cell phones …", etc., and I thought he was the stage manager, or assistant director, but we slid seamlessly into the company filtering onstage, and the "brechtian" exposition of what we were in for - love, and he reminds you after intermission in his prologue to Act II in case you forgot - and I realized he was the lead in the show, part Kurt Vonnegut, part Garrison Keillor, part dad-from-Malcolm-in-the-Middle but breaking good, part sitcom-ish suitor, husband, father, shower enclosure installer … As "Tom", the narrator, William Hulings exudes ease, charm, friendliness, obviously enjoying the role of someone enjoying his role in, as the director Brian Hambach says in his notes, a "mega-meta" layering of meaning and association. For example, anyone ever committed to an american community theater production of anything will immediately relate to the scenes sketching out the process of the local production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and its motif as a vehicle for igniting passion, and its other motif of being bigger than yourself in the shoes of somebody else to "be." This is the skeleton of the middle segment, from the story that also lends itself to the title of this show (Who Am I This Time?, Saturday Evening Post, 1961). Steve Coatsworth is suitably schizophrenic as the wall-flower nerd "Harry" who gets all the lead roles (hence the title) because he "comes alive" inside a role on stage (he virtually becomes Stanley in "Streetcar"), thoroughly confusing his "Stella" Hannah Hogan (who also plays the young wife-to-be, and later, their daughter), when she misinterprets his offstage shyness as rejection.
The first segment, Newt-as-a-young-man-comes-a-courtin', (based on Long Walk to Forever, first published in Ladies Home Journal, 1960, with a film version appearing in 1987 with Denis Leary and Dana Nathan) is americana magic romance moment, part of Kurt's personal myth perhaps, but if anything like this did happen to him, he's a lucky man indeed, at least for these redemptive moments. This bit is played out charmingly by John K. Jeffrey as "Newt," who also plays Joey and John (The show uses multiple-casting throughout, except for Storm Kennedy, who's always "Kate" ("Catherine" grown up) and "Tom" - well, even "Tom" is also "Newt" … I know, it's confusing, see below.) The ingenue who plays the future Mrs. Newt, Hannah Hogan, also plays the daughter in the later scenes, where a small leap of faith is asked of the audience, as the "young" "Catherine" is dark-skinned, dark-haired, sturdy, the "older" Mrs. Kurt, ... er, Mrs. Newt, "Kate," is a thin light-skinned blonde. The Gloria Swanson clone (Pamela Lehan-Siegel, who also plays "Doris" in the Streetcar production bits) in the last bit (adapted from Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son, Ladies Home Journal, 1962, an acting script appeared in 1982 by Vaughn McBride), is costumed (by Jeanette DeJong) to look like she stepped straight out of Sunset Blvd. "Newt" is played (uncredited in the program) by William Hulings in this section of the show; he's listed only as "Tom" in the credits.
As if Congreve had stepped in to script-doctor, an unintentional bout of companionable drinking leads to an unintentional confrontation with the wife, which leads to a moment of forgiveness and redemption and tolerance, which contrasts in congrevian fashion with the failure of the marriage of "Gloria" and her husband-of-convenience "George" (Russell Dyball, who also plays "Verne"), the rich writer who hires "Tom" to replace his shower enclosure with a door bearing the etched-glass image of "Gloria"'s supposedly beautiful movie-star face. Btw, William Hulings gives good drunk; the progressive "inebriation" through a series of quick scenes was well-crafted and genuinely amusing. "Kate" doesn't have a lot to do other than mom-isms and being the straight foil for "Tom" … "Newt" … whoever he is; her moment of crisis is even upstaged by "Tom/Newt"'s humorous drunken rant, and the anxiety is played out by him, waiting for her to return, but Storm Kennedy is intriguing in a caricature sort of approach to the role; she deserves a crack at something she can get a few more theatrical teeth into.
I have to admit that I haven't read the original stories, or their other theatrical treatments. Yet. So it goes.
"Who Am I This Time? and other conundrums of love," directed by Brian Haimbach,
scenic design by Darryl Marzyck, lighting by J Michael Gilg, costumes by Jeanette DeJong, at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 West Broadway, Eugene, through December 7, 2013. 7:30 pm curtain time.