Rare Vonnegut Comes To Sacred Fools

Sirens Sacred Fools
Director Ben Rock and actor Eric Curtis Johnson; Photo: Scott Golden

Ben Rock (Blair Witch Project, Alien Raiders, Baal, Occupation, Taste) laying out his Sirens of Titan Show & Tell – script, program, tattered teen tome and set design specs – was like discovering ancient artifacts that were going to change the course of human history.

“I brought some visual aids to show you. One of them is the original script that I got from the Chicago Public Library archives. This adaptation that we’re doing, was done in 1975 by the Organic Theatre in Chicago.  Stuart did the adaptation with Vonnegut back then. Stuart also gave me the original program from 1977. Look at who was in it. Dennis Franz, Joe Mantegna, and Keith Szarabajka. Keith played Stony Stevenson in the original version. He’s probably going to do the voice for us. And by the way, Caroline who played Beatrice, that’s Stuart’s wife.”

Kurt Vonnegut’s original Hugo Award-nominated novel The Sirens of Titan revolves around a Martian invasion of Earth, and addresses issues of free will, omniscience and the overall purpose of human history.

“Keith, just had amazing stories about his whole experience. When I told him we had the script, he was like, ‘We had a script? I thought we just all had a copy of the book marked up with crayons.’”

It was also a beast to cast. The search for talent who embodied each character’s specificities was, as Rock described it, “like choosing from a murderer’s row of amazing actors”.

But then, the Theater-Film-Television-Producer-Director-Writer-Production Designer, hyphenate, seems to have a penchant for the weird and remote, and a knack for bringing it to life.

vonnegut sirens of titan sacred fools
Photo: Jessica Sherman Photography

Rock’s alternate-universe directing is partnered with genre master Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Taste) for Sacred Fools Theatre Company’s 2017 Mainstage season finale, to re-create the early script as a fresh (epic) theatrical experience.

You’ve been in love with Vonnegut since you’ve been a teenager. Why?

Late in adolescence, I read Slaughterhouse Five. It was one of those books that gave you permission to be who you are. It set me off on an all-you-can-eat buffet of Vonnegut. The Sirens of Titan was one of my favorites.

Vonnegut’s books always went down like a sweet, sweet milkshake. He was just funny and punk rock and throwing out traditional structure, so I thought. You have these extremely crude characters cursing and swearing and having sex and wet dreams and stuff, that eighteen-year-old me was able to relate to.

When I re-read Slaughterhouse Five recently, I realized it’s a very classically structured book. Vonnegut merely appears to play with structure. You recognize it’s all about him dealing with PTSD. It’s a terribly sad, confessional story about how the worst things that happen to you, turn you into who you are; that we’re all used in various ways without our knowledge. It’s kind of meta.

Why Sirens?

Vonnegut’s stuff is smart, spare and straightforward. It’s not flowery or wordy. He has a very specific authorial voice – terse and dry, brutally sarcastic and fun. Of course in the case of The Sirens of Titan, it’s an outrageous story. There’s a lot of wackiness and humor. He takes a crap all over everything that is sacred and couches hard truth in delicious, ironic narrative science fiction that’s full of weird aliens and robots. You’re allowed to laugh. And the laugh disarms you a bit. But then the philosophy sinks in. This appealed to the adolescent in me then and now and I saw the message as one of humanism and people exercising free will within a deterministic universe.

The sirens in ancient Greece called to sailors with beautiful songs from the island and made them wreck their ships. What Vonnegut is referencing there is that Malachi, the protagonist of the book, who is rich by birth, is promised at the beginning that he’s going to end up on Titan, the Moon of Saturn and he’s going to meet these beautiful women. He’s shown a picture that entrances him. When he gets there, however, it’s just a statue. Nothing is real. Malachi is a guy on a pathway seeking these all-important, all-consuming things. When he finds them, he realizes none of them are what they were supposed to be. And he bears a terrible responsibility for everything that’s happened along the way.

vonnegut sacred fools
Actors Jamie Andrews and Pete Caslavka; Photo: Jessica Sherman Photography

How did you discover the play even existed?

In  1991 I was living in Orlando. There was a theater there called Theatre Downtown run by Frank Hilgenberg. Frank told me he came from the Organic Theatre and had worked for Stuart Gordon as a 19-year-old horror fan. Of course, Stuart Gordon’s name meant the world to me because of Re-Animator and I couldn’t have been more excited. Shortly thereafter, Frank saw me reading a Vonnegut book and says, “Oh we did a Vonnegut adaptation of The Sirens of Titan.”

I was just starting college. I didn’t know how to track something like that down. And there was no internet. So I filed that away until four years ago when I was working on Taste with Stuart.

Stuart didn’t have a copy so that started me on a little quest. I went from archive to archive and finally landed in a specific archive at the Chicago Public Library that housed all the Organic scripts. I got permission from Stuart. But I also needed to get permission from the Vonnegut Estate.

The Vonnegut Estate has been instrumental in helping us set this up. The executor of the estate Don Farber, Kurt Vonnegut’s actual lawyer, then in his 90’s, agreed to let me get it as long as we could get a copy to them. They didn’t have one.

When I finally got the play, it didn’t feel like a full-length script but it reads like one. It’s only twenty-nine pages long. It’s top of the page to the bottom of the page, from one side to the other. It looked like a one-act. I asked Stuart why was it formatted like that.

“We were just trying to save paper.”

sirens of titan Jesse Merlin sacred fools
Actor Jesse Merlin; Photo: Jessica Sherman Photography

How are you pulling it all together?

I’m biting my nails to the quick.  I’m doing everything in my power to make sure the play makes narrative sense so that the audience will stay with it. I tend to think audiences are very smart. But it’s still important to make something like this accessible.

This is a book and we’re putting on a play. They are two different animals. I keep saying to the cast too, all the answers that we need are in this book. There’s some good research in here if you’re wondering why your character does x, y or z.

Many things have to come together.  We’re dealing with puppets, special costumes, projections, a moving set and difficult transitions. We’ve come up with some brilliant solutions, though.  And whenever I direct a play, we have one rehearsal where it’s nothing but scene changes so that we can keep the story moving. Nothing sucks the life out of an audience like a scene change.

Stuart has done an amazing job in his revision for our production. The Sirens of Titan is distilled down to a playable theatrical story but holds onto all the heart. That’s what the audience is here for.

About Tracey Paleo

Tracey Paleo is Associate Editor at FootLights Magazine. She's also the Founder and Chief Editor of the arts and culture site, Gia On The Move, where she often reviews live performance events.

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