Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Happy Birthday Wanda June, by Kurt Vonnegut, directed by Cate Clelland for Canberra Repertory Society, until August 4. Reviewed by PHILLIP MACKENZIE

Iain Murray Jemima Phillips and Antonia Kitzel in Heaven

HAPPY Birthday Wanda June was written by Kurt Vonnegut in America's post-Vietnam period, which puts it in the crude early days of contemporary feminism, broad-brush pacifism, environmentalism, save-the-whale- and several other -isms, some of which have matured and others of which have been overtaken. It is, therefore, a somewhat earnest piece of polemic recalling, but not surpassing, the didactic use to which George Bernard Shaw and other moralists put the theatre.
It tells, in a rather fractured way, the story of the Hemingway-like figure of Harold Ryan, returning after 10 years from masochistic adventures in various jungles to reclaim his rightful place as the commanding head of his family – wife Penelope (remember Mrs Odysseus?) and their son – and to scourge the family apartment of a couple of wimpish suitors. He also links up with a broken ex-commanding officer from his Vietnam days. Among all this real-time action Vonnegut gives us some odd glimpses, in Heaven, of the Wanda June of the title, a bewildered German major, and a puzzling survivor of Vonnegut's WW2 days.
Michael Sparks and  Jess Waterhouse
This, undoubtedly, is not one of Vonnegut's better works: is it pastoral, historical, comical, farcical, comical-historical, moral? Or is it a bit of all of that? And does it need to be one or the other, if it is as well-done as in this production?
The set is an impressive recreation of the times – garish wall-paper, lava-lamp and glowing fibre-glass 'sculpture', tropical fernery – and then there are the gruesome trophy heads looming over all. All involved in the realisation of the 1960s apartment – lighting, sound, decoration, deserve a tick, the biggest of which goes to the trophy heads, designed by Cate Clelland and created by Russell Brown and Andrew Kay.
Cate Clelland has had the luxury of casting as fine a crew of actors as you could wish for in an amateur production. Without a Harold Ryan to dominate the show, this play would be greatly diminished, and Michael Sparks meets the demands of playing an absolutely detestable bastard with aplomb while Jess Waterhouse, despite Penelope's pre-PC leopard-skin coat, gives him as well as she gets while attending to the demands of the nouveau PC-class Rowan McMurray (the inept vacuum-cleaner salesman Herbert Shuttle) and Peter Holland (Dr Norbert Woodly) – not to forget the 13-yo Nick Dyball's confident portrayal of a really confused teen (Paul Ryan) defended by – and defending – a loving mother and caught between three potential male role-models.
David Bennett's representation of the guilt-rapt, febrile, pre-dementia Colonel Looseleaf Harper creates a believable and compassionate foil to Harold Ryan's absolutism.

For light relief we need go no further than Jemima Phillips as the delightful goody-two-shoes/Pippi Longstocking‎ Wanda June and the Hogan's Heroes caricature Iain Murray makes of Major Siegfried von Konigswald. Antonia Kitzel makes her reliable mark in a late-entrance appearance in Heaven as Mildred Harper, although it's never clear what these characters have to do with any part of the plot.
As a recently-returned prodigal, I have seen no better example of Cate Clelland's direction and I'm so glad Rep chose this flawed play at this time; dated as it may be, it shows us in a highly engaging and entertaining way that today's Trumped-up 'America-first', misogynistic world view has deep roots.