Performance » Theater

For the Love of Vonnegut

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While strolling down Mass Ave., you may have noticed a mural of a 38-foot-tall, tousled, bushy-browed man. That’s Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and he’s kind of a big deal. Evidence of Indianapolis’ most beloved native son is all over this city. There is, of course, the excellent Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Kurt Vonnegut mugs, T-shirts and finger puppets dot the aisles of local handicraft shops. Oh, and his typewriter even has its own Twitter account.

And these days Vonnegut can be found center stage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Now running at the IRT is Who Am I This Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love), a play adapted by Aaron Posner from Vonnegut’s early short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House.

As a Vonnegut fan, Director Janet Allen couldn’t be more thrilled to be working on this show. “Vonnegut is our boy!” she exclaims. “We want to own him and celebrate him, and this was a great opportunity to do that.”

Robert Neal & Constance Macy in Who am I this Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love). - ZACH ROSING
  • Zach Rosing
  • Robert Neal & Constance Macy in Who am I this Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love).

But getting to this point has been a long road. Have you ever seen any of Vonnegut’s work adapted to the stage? You probably haven’t, because it’s so rarely done. Allen explains that while Vonnegut was very generous during his lifetime about granting rights to his work — and usually for free — he wouldn’t give anybody licensing rights. “So you could do your one production and not even pay him any royalties,” she says, “but you couldn’t do it again. And that was a very interesting, sort of socialist approach, but what it meant was that playwrights didn’t adapt stuff because they couldn’t make any money off of it.”

After Vonnegut died in 2007, that changed, and there’s now a boom of Vonnegut adaptation happening in the industry. First produced in 2012, Who Am I This Time? is one of the earliest of these works.

But Who Am I This Time? isn’t necessarily the prototypical Vonnegut. It’s not, as Allen points out, a black comedy and contains no elements of science fiction; it’s very firmly rooted in real life. It’s based on three stories from very early in Vonnegut’s career, originally published by the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies’ Home Journal. They are, quite simply, three stories about the search for love — though the love in these stories is far from simple. Despite apparently commonplace subject matter, Allen notes, “there’s still a little bit of that Vonnegut pepper in there.” The stories feature a young Army private who goes AWOL to thwart a wedding, a timid hardware store clerk-cum-actor, and a man who abandons his family to marry a Hollywood star, all woven together and contextualized by storytelling and music.

Constance Macy & Robert Neal in IRT's production of Who am I this Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love) by Aaron Posner. - ZACH ROSING
  • Zach Rosing
  • Constance Macy & Robert Neal in IRT's production of Who am I this Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love) by Aaron Posner.

Once tasked with directing this performance, Allen set about working with the playwright to Hoosier-ize the production. In order to make the stories feel familiar to Indianapolis audiences, Allen asked Posner if the setting could be changed to Indiana, instead of New England. Posner was more than happy to oblige. And it’s a good thing, too, because no Naptowner would be fooled by Posner’s nominal New England setting. Allen points out that any local would immediately recognize Vonnegut’s reference to the bell tower at “the school for the blind.” The actors are also encouraged to use local dialects — and even mispronunciations — to evoke a distinctly Midwestern feel. Allen says, “Without being cliché or judgmental, we are trying to invite that Midwestern, particularly Indiana, sensibility to it. We talk all the time about how in our business, there are so few movies, television shows or plays that explore the Midwest as anything other than a flyover zone, so we’re trying to counteract that and celebrate things that we should be celebrating.”

Ryan Artzberger & Constance Macy in Who am I this Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love). - ZACH ROSING
  • Zach Rosing
  • Ryan Artzberger & Constance Macy in Who am I this Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love).

Hear hear! Vonnegut fans and detractors alike will find something to love in Who Am I This Time? Keep in mind that while the larger-than-life Vonnegut mural may be here for years to come, this performance will only be around until Feb. 23. So it goes.

Forty-five minutes before curtain, a 15- to 20-minute discussion hosted by IRT staff and artists precedes each performance. Then following the play, audience members can enjoy the postshow conversation. After tomorrow’s performance (Sunday, Feb. 9th) author and Vonnegut contemporary Dan Wakefield will talk, along with Indy Reads’ executive director Travis DiNicola.

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