And So It Goes | “The Sirens of Titan” @ Sacred Fools

The Sirens of Titan (Sacred Fools)There are many things I can blame for my science fiction addiction, but one of the first culprits was a camp counselor who decided to read to us short stories from Kurt Vonnegut‘s excellent short story collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House“. From that point, Vonnegut rapidly became one of my favorite authors, and I devoured everything he wrote. One such book was his novel “The Sirens of Titan”, which my notes from those days say I first read in September 1976, when I would have been starting my senior year of high school. Vonnegut’s novels were unlike any other novel — at times oddly non-linear, referencing odd concepts and painting a very sardonic and cynical view of society and where mankind had been taking itself.

I haven’t picked up “The Sirens of Titan” since 1976 (when I paid $1.95 for the paperback, new). That’s a shame, for it would have been nice to have the story fresher in my mind for last night, when we saw The Sirens of Titan in an excellent production at Sacred Fools Theatre (FB) in Hollywood. Looking back at the book when I got home, the production hewed true to both the story and the tone of the book, and made me want to revisit my Vonnegut addiction after all these years. That’s a good thing, and if you don’t  think so, you’re a ✴️ (and if you don’t know what that symbolizes, well, you need to read your Vonnegut).

The production of The Sirens of Titan originated with Chicago’s Organic Theatre (FB) in 1977, if I have my math right. At that time, Vonnegut himself was involved in the adaptation, and encouraged the adaptation team to not be slavishly faithful to the book, but to make the story right for a play. Skimming the novel’s text afterwards, I believe they achieved the right level. I can see places where Vonnegut’s dialogue and notions were lifted straight off the page. I can also see a few things cut out. They made good choices. If you like Vonnegut, you’ll enjoy this show. It is clear that the director, Ben Rock (FB), is a Vonnegut fan.

So what is the plot of the story? That may not be the right question, not only because it is a little hard to describe. A spaceman, Winston Niles Rumfoord, and his dog Kazak, take a spaceship to Mars but get caught in a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, which to put it simply, means they stretch out over time, see everything, but reappear on Earth every 57 years. On one of these anniversaries, Rumfoord summons one of the richest and luckiest men in the world, Malachi Constant, to tell him his future. Basically, he’ll go to to Mars, fall in love with Rumfoord’s wife Beatrice, have a son, Chronos, then go to Mercury, then back to Earth, and then to Titan, where he will fall in love. The rest of the play is watching that all played out from the eyes of our confused protagonist Malachi Constant. We meet his friends on Mars, such as Boaz, as well as the alien Salo that lives on Titan. You can find the summary of the book’s plot on Wikipedia.

Perhaps a better question is: What is the point of the story? In some ways, it is a commentary on religion — after all, the story posits the creation of a church of God the Indifferent, and the play opens with a commentary about fake religious leaders. I tend to think there is a deeper meaning about the purpose of life overall, and Vonnegut’s cynical take on it. This is captured in a line from the book spoken by a character near the end: “The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody.” Vonnegut is very big on character relationships, both meaningful and meaningless. To Vonnegut, a meaningless interaction — an interaction devoid of deeper purpose — is still better than to be ignored.  The same saying was captured many years later in the musical Rent, when it noted that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it is indifference.

One of the hallmarks of Sacred Fools is its inventiveness, which we saw a few years ago in their old space with the delightful Astro Boy. Ben Rock (FB) has continued that inventiveness with a creative and playful staging. He has worked with his actors to bring out that playfulness and creativity as well, making the production a joy to watch even as you puzzle over the deeper meaning and significance.

In the lead positions are Eric Curtis Johnson (FB) as Winston Niles Rumfoord, Pete Caslavka (FB) as Malachi Constant, and Jaime Andrews (FB) as Beatrice Rumfoord. Johnson’s portrayal of Rumfoord is a mixture of bemusement and resignation to his fate, which comes across quite well. He seemed to be having a great time with the role, and that (as always) came across well. He performance was also a consistent characterization across the entire story. That’s less so for the other main characters, who start out with one personality, and end up with a completely different persona. Martian brainwashing and all that. Caslavka’s portrayal of Malachi captures this well, starting out as an overly self-important prick (think Elon Musk, and add it a little Steve Jobs), and then transforming into more of the everyman that life is dragging from place to place, often not telling us why. Similarly, Andrews’ performance of Beatrice captures that character’s transformation well: this time from a stuck-up society wife seemingly indifferent, to more of an adaptable badass, to again someone who has been swept along, accepting her fate. A minor distracting note for Caslavka’s portrayal: there are times where the costuming reveals perhaps something that isn’t appropriate to reveal (or at least an unnecessary distriction), especially in the yellow jumpsuit. Luckily, that’s easily correctable.

The remaining performers constitute the ensemble, while also playing named characters. There are four I would like to single out. First, Jax Ball (TW) as Young Chrono is irresistibly cute, and reminded me of the lead from Astro Boy even though she wasn’t with SFT at the time. She was just having fun with the role, and it was great to see. It is always fun to see Jesse Merlin (FB) on stage — going back to the days many many years ago when we saw him in The Beastly Bombing and he was still regularly on LiveJournal. Here, his take on the alien Salo is playful and inventive and just a joy to watch (Merlin also gave me the most astonishment on this writeup, as I can’t figure out how we have the FB friends we have in common in common).  Tim Kopacz (FB) was notable for a role in which he isn’t seen: inside the wonderful Kazak the dog, who is incredibly dog-like in his movement and behavior it is remarkable. Oh, he makes a great Stony Stevenson as well.  Lastly, K. J. Middlebrooks (FB) as Boaz, Malachi (then called “Unk”)’s friend. I was unsure about him on his Mars scenes, but he came into his own on Mercury, especially in the scene that opened Act II. Tifanie McQueen (FB) was billed as Mrs. Peterson + Ensemble, but I didn’t recognize the character until I saw her FB photo: she was great explaining the Harmonium. Rounding out the ensemble were Dennis Neal (FB) as Redwine + Ensemble, Keith Szarabajka (FB) as the voice, and Emily Kosloski (FB) as the voice of the sirens.

Understudies were: Curt Bonnem (FB) (u/s Malachi Constant); Libby Baker (FB) (u/s Beatrice Rumfoord); Paul Plunkett (FB) (u/s Winston Niles Rumfoord); Adriana Colón (FB) (u/s Young Chrono + Ensemble); Gabriel Croom (FB) (u/s Boaz / Kazak / Stony Stevenson / Ensemble); Corey Klemow (FB) (u/s Salo + Ensemble); Brendan Broms (FB) (u/s Redwine); and Missy Mannila (FB) (u/s Mrs. Peterson + Ensemble).

As I said upfront, the creative team behind this production was remarkable. From the extremely clever set design to the remarkable sound effects to the great projections to the wonderful lighting effects to the costumes and makeup — all came together to create a wonderfully creative and cohesive whole. The team consisted of: Krystyna Łoboda (FB) (Scenic Designer); Matt Richter (FB) and Adam Earle (FB) (Lighting Designers); Jennifer Christina DeRosa (FB) (Costume Designer); Hat & Suitcase (Projection Design); Jaime Robledo (FB) (Sound Design); Lisa Anne Nicolai (FB) (Prop Designer); Russ Walko (FB) (Puppet/Creature Designer); Angela Santori Merritt (FB) (Hair and Makeup). Rounding out the production credits were:  Scott Golden (FB) – Assistant Director; Maggie Marx (FB) – Stage Manager; Alicia Conway Rock/FB – Dramaturge; Hillary Bauman – Key Scenic; Ruth Silveria/FB – Assistant Costume Designer; Michael Teoli (FB) – Score Composer; Cj Merriman – Choreography; Chairman Barnes (FB) – Military Advisor. The Sirens of Titan was produced by Shaela Cook (FB); Bo Powell (FB) was the Associate Producer.

The Sirens of Titans continues at Sacred Fools Theatre (FB) in Hollywood until May 6, 2017. This clever and inventive production of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel is well worth seeing. Tickets are available through the Sacred Fools Online box office; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Next week brings Doc Severinsen and his Big Band at Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 13, followed by Animaniacs Live at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center (FB) over the weekend. That will be followed on the penultimate weekend of April with Sister Act at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The last weekend of April brings the Renaissance Pleasure Faire on Saturday, and the new musical The Theory of Relativity at Harter Hall/Charles Stuart Howard Playhouse (FB) on Sunday. Lastly, looking to May, the schedule shows that it starts with My Bodyguard at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) the first weekend. It continues with Martha Graham Dance and American Music at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The third weekend brings the last show of the Actors Co-op (FB) season, Lucky Stiff, at Actors Co-op (FB). May concludes with Hello Again at the Chromolume Theatre (FB), and hopefully Five Guys Named Moe at Ebony Repertory Theatre (FB).  As for June? Three words: Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). That, barring something spectacular cropping up, should be the first half of 2017.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.