Apparently, the original title that Kurt Vonnegut Jr was going to give to his reworking of Homer’s Odyssey was “Penelope”, in recognition of the source of its plot. The total absurdity of the title he finally chose is, however, a far more accurate reflection of the loopy humour that characterises both the play and Wanda June’s very tenuous toehold in it. Stagewise’s revival of Happy Birthday Wanda June gives theatregoers an opportunity to revisit this play from the ’70s and compare the issues of that time with what we’re on about 30 years on. Then, it was battles on every front, from Vietnam to the sexes, and of course the big debate on whether we should be making love or war. Now . . . well some of the words may have changed, but the tunes are still sounding familiar enough for Vonnegut’s satirical treatment of them to find their mark on contemporary funny bones while making some painfully sharp points.
And, under Len Granato’s direction, the players go at it with great gusto, especially in the accelerated momentum of the second act. While this is an ensemble work, with everyone having their moment in the sun, the highlights for me were the fireworks between the chauvinistic Harold Ryan and his freshly educated wife Penelope, after those long years of separation. Peter Moore’s Harold is a flamboyant mix of Ernest Hemingway and Burt Lancaster while Terese Suvorovs has her Penelope ricocheting between confusion and capitulation on the one hand, and dignity and self-possession on the other. As the suitors who are complicating her life at this time, Paul Careless is very suitably nerdy as the peace-loving Dr Norbet Woodly, while Jason Lawson manages to make the brash vacuum cleaner salesman, Herb Shuttle, a surprisingly touching looser in search of “confidence”.
As the play is set in New York, inevitably from an Australian cast there is a smorgasbord of accents, but overall they work reasonably well together. However, while the wild-eyed and mumbling Looseleaf Harper is clearly an individual who is a couple of slices short of a loaf, the way in which actor Janus swallows portions of his dialogue means that some of the impact of his character is lost in sotto voce audience whispers of “waddidhesay?”. And while having Amy Coutts play the part of Paul Ryan is a nicely reverse Shakespearean touch, there are some who might argue that there is more to the male persona than a Neanderthal slouch and a simian swinging of the arms.
The other-worldly appearances by the prancing Alice Nixon, the cynically Germanic Chris Guyler and the jaded Julie Leaver add not only to the humour, but also to the underlying philosophical questions that Vonnegut poses about life, happiness, and the point of it all, whatever that might be. Sound Operator Casey Moon-Watton should take a bow for the fabulously appalling animal doorbell rings, and for the various sound bites that effectively highlight elements of the play. There are, however, a couple of critical points where the volume could be reduced without an appreciable loss of impact, such as the thunderous flushing of the toilet in a crucial scene, and the volume of the merry-go-round music that drowns out the second half of Alice Nixon’s monologue.
Susanna Jowett’s design of the Ryans’ apartment is very crisp and in-your-face Hemingway-in-hunter-mode, and it is only when the front door comes into play as it does extremely often that the position of the dining table and chairs hard up against it becomes a mildly distracting problem. Essentially, they act as an obstacle course that the actors have to squeeze by each time they go in and out; and the constraints of a small stage notwithstanding something could be done about that.
Whether or not you’ve seen Wanda June before, you might well find, as I did, that this revival by Stagewise provides a salutary reminder of the sad fact that so far the more things change the more they are staying the same. And while Vonnegut sees a lot of those things as being pretty undesirable, his message ably communicated in this production is that you might as well laugh as well as cry about that.