Toxic Gonzo Live! Happy Birthday, Wanda June by Kurt Vonnegut

I never knew that Kurt Vonnegut had two plays in his repertoire… but after reading Casey Sherman’s Helltown (see my Goodreads review of that, as well – it was excellent!) where he describes the opening of Wanda June on Broadway while Vonnegut was going through a divorce and doing a pavement-pounding investigation of a man that may have dated his daughter before going on to be Cape Cod’s most notorious serial killer, I had to pick it up. 

After picking it up, I decided I had to stage it – and I will be this December in Central Massachusetts.

“At least you’ve got a place to come back to. I don’t have a place to come back to anymore… I used to really love that Alice. Do you know that?” / “You know her for what she is now-garbage.” 

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a play about toxic masculinity wrapped in a retelling of Odysseus’ homecoming to Penelope from the Odyssey. It is mainly about Penelope who hasn’t seen her husband in years as he has gone hunting and to war at all corners of the world, killing people and animals, scavenging trophies, and collecting so many diamonds with his friend Looseleaf that they are now set for life. But while he was gone, Penelope had him declared legally dead, their marriage dissolved, and she is dating two losers – a doctor who is kind of a hippie and a vacuum salesman that everyone is convinced is gay. We learn she is engaged to marry the doctor when, you guessed it, her husband arrives home. Simultaneously, we learn of two side stories told by three characters reporting to us from heaven: Wanda June, a girl who was killed by a drunk ice cream truck driver on her birthday, and von Koningswald, a Nazi German officer that the husband famously killed in a bar. They are in heaven having a great time playing shuffleboard all day with the likes of Harold Ryan’s ex-wife and their other best friends: Albert Einstein, Jesus Christ, Judas Iscariot, Adolf Hitler, and other notable historic figures.  

“Nevermind the condition of your body and your spirit! Look after your things, your things!” 

Of course, hilarity ensues once the juxtaposition of what it means to be a man and woman is on full display, mostly because the play is set in the Nixon era where the forefront of people’s minds was focused on communism and the Vietnam war, the women’s rights movement, and a handful of other huge disruptions to the way things had always been done in America. There is no question that issues of possession and materialism of living things, violence, and identity are central to this piece, and what is so interesting is how many of the references regardless of the original intent remain relevant: women’s rights have just recently been in jeopardy once more, Russia and China are still relevant foes, and the roles of men and women in relationship and their boundaries have changed in newer more pervasive ways but the play doesn’t have to. It’s all still here. 

“You’re hollow, like a woman.” 

This is a play that is as spectacular as it is funny and bizarre. Its short Broadway run is not very surprising and I am certain it lost a lot of money, but I am looking forward to breathing some new life into it with my actors on my stage. I have already cast many of the men’s roles with women playing the parts to add a little more magnetic and subversive approach toward casting the roles, and they are loving the script and completely get its strange Vonnegutian fantasy and wit. I am looking forward to seeing how they come together to make some fantastic art that turns the mirror back toward the irrational, strange world we live in as we wonder… have we truly made any progress at all fifty years on? 

Might as well laugh about it, right? 

So it goes.  

Photo of “The Bill Kruse Wild Life Collection” – Mounted Animals at Lac qui Parle History Center, Madison, MN by MyotusCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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