Disturbing farce blurs the thin line between comedy and tragedy
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Disturbing farce blurs the thin line between comedy and tragedy

Happy Birthday, Wanda June. By Kurt Vonnegut. Directed by Cate Clelland. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3, Ellery Crescent, Acton. Until August 4. Bookings: canberrarep.org.au  or 62571950.

Antonia Kitzel, left, Jemima Phillips and Iain Murray in <i>Happy Birthday, Wanda June</i>.

Antonia Kitzel, left, Jemima Phillips and Iain Murray in Happy Birthday, Wanda June.

Photo: Helen Drum

What makes a man a man? That is the question in Canberra Rep’s production of Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday Wanda June.

Take Vonnegut’s macho war hero, Harold Ryan (Michael Sparks), returning after an eight-year absence presumed dead by his wife Penelope (Jess Waterhouse). Or Penelope’s suitor, Dr Norbert Woodly (Peter Holland), a peace-loving throwback from the hippie generation. Or her other suitor Herb Shuttle (Rowan McMurray), a hero-worshipping vacuum cleaner salesman.

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Perhaps it’s what Penelope and Harold’s 12-year-old son may become with a .22 rifle in his hands? Then there’s Colonel Looseleaf Harper (David Bennett). He carries the guilt of a man who dropped an atom bomb on Nagasaki.

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Vonnegut offers an uncompromising indictment of alpha male aggression.

Big game hunter Ryan’s questionable military heroism is tarnished on his unexpected return by his display of ugly masculinity, spewing forth stereotype in word and deed. Penelope’s futile attempts at assertiveness fall foul of intimidation and threatening sexual violence.

Michael Sparks and Jess Waterhouse in <i>Happy Birthday, Wanda June</i>.

Michael Sparks and Jess Waterhouse in Happy Birthday, Wanda June.

Photo: Helen Drum

In Vonnegut’s world there are no heroes, only victims. Only heaven can release victims from their mortal world in a paradise of spotlights and a mirror ball. Here, where shuffleboard is the unifying force of purgation, Wanda June (Jemima Phillips), the 11-year-old victim of an ice-cream truck accident, the fascist Beast of Yugoslavia (Iain Murray) and Ryan’s first wife Mildred (Antonia Kitzel) exist in blissful happiness. Vonnegut’s mortal world draws its bitter and cruel veil of darkness across a flawed humanity.

Clelland’s directorial vision creates sad clowns, bumbling through an unexpected and farcical situation. Only Penelope and her son Paul (promising young performer Nick Dyball) provide a core of sanity in the mounting absurdity of male behaviour in Vonnegut’s satirical condemnation of his sex.

In Rep’s production, the thin line between comedy and tragedy is blurred. Vonnegut’s play appears far less comical nearly 50 years after it was written and more tragic in the fact the consequences of the actions and attitudes of men like Harold Ryan persist. In yet another showcase of Canberra Rep’s excellent production design values, Clelland’s authentically designed and colourful retro styled production appears to err on the side of entertaining posturing rather than substance.

Loosely inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey, Happy Birthday, Wanda June reflects Vonnegut’s cynical view of a world that won’t change. Clelland and her cast have staged a comical farce. Vonnegut’s disturbing reality is nothing to laugh at.