“Happy Birthday, Wanda June” Retains Relevance in 2018

On Wednesday, Nov. 14 at 8 p.m., the St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) Theatre, Film and Media Studies Department (TFMS) opened its timely interpretation of “Happy Birthday, Wanda June.” The play, written originally by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in 1971 proved that it still had an important message to share with a Trump-era audience.

The play is set in an apartment in New York City, where Penelope Ryan (Nadia Gaylin) and her son, Paul Ryan (Jason Williams) live. The apartment is completely white and covered in marble, with the animal skins of Harold Ryan (Kevin Glotfelty) draped over furniture for a splash of color. It is Harold’s birthday, and the anniversary of his disappearance into the jungle with Colonel Looseleaf Harper (Jake Jaffe) in search of diamonds. Penelope is content to spend the evening entertaining her suitors, hippie Dr. Norbert Woodly (JW Ruth) and awkward vacuum salesman Herb Shuttle (Connor Heveron). This upsets young Paul, who, despite many years having passed since Harold’s leaving and becoming legally dead, still sees Penelope as unfaithful to his father. Paul runs away, followed by Penelope, Woodly and Shuttle, as Penelope tries to appease her son while Woodly and Shuttle try to appease her. The apartment is left empty. All of a sudden, a key unlocks the door and Harold and Looseleaf appear, dirty and tired, but very much alive.

The plot of the play from then on is hinged on the unexpected return of Harold and his toxic masculinity, allowed to grow unfettered in the harsh Amazon. Director Mark Rhoda describes Harold as comparable to our modern-day bastion of toxic masculinity, President Donald Trump. Not only does Harold feel a constant need to prove his masculinity, but he also sees sexual relations with women as a conquest, and non-white humans as animals. Harold’s problematic behavior and connections to Trump are explicitly when Harold dons a red hat bearing the infamous acronym “MAGA” or “Make America Great Again,” a slogan originally coined by Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign.

Harold’s personality is foiled by Woodly and Shuttle, Woodly as a man of peace, representing non-violence and sensitivity, and Shuttle as the kind of spineless man who might get caught up in Harold’s ideology when his own life has proved to be less than the American Dream promised to him. Harold’s friend, Looseleaf, on the other hand, represents the grim reality of an overly masculine culture. As the man who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki during World War II, he is tormented by PTSD. Looseleaf shows us that the only result of the wars that men like Harold create is pain, not just on the side that loses.

Throughout “Wanda June,” those in Heaven watch from above, or rather, from a platform above the main action. In this version of Heaven, everyone is happy and plays shuffleboard. Wanda June (Emily Grasso), a girl killed on her birthday, leaving behind an unclaimed cake with her name on it that is later picked up by Penelope’s suitors, flounces around with Siegfried Von Konigswald (Jeanette Warren), a Nazi leader killed by Harold. Neither is too upset with their circumstances. Wanda June, in fact, states that everyone must be thankful to the things that kill them, because without them, they would not be in Heaven. Wanda June is thankful for the truck that hit her on her birthday, just like Konigswald is thankful for Harold. Konigswald even concedes that, all in all, he admires the skill of Harold in killing him and others during the war. He respects him as a fellow soldier, taking on the manly task of facing one’s enemies and ending their lives in the name of whatever banner they act under. Looseleaf, on the other hand, is seen as unnecessarily cruel, having killed hundreds of thousands of men and women in the blink of an eye without much effort. But, Konigswald’s admiration of Harold reflects how whether a soldier is considered a hero or a monster really just depends on who won. The fact that that then puts Harold on par with a Nazi is even more damning.

The two adult female characters in this play, Penelope and Mildred (Maeve Ballantine), are especially interesting. Penelope holds her own against her suitors and Harold. At one point, she even holds a gun up towards Harold, unafraid of the consequences. She has been living just fine without her husband, and will be just fine for years more. Penelope’s entertaining of two suitors at once is not a source of shame for her, either. Mildred, the dead ex-wife of Harold living on in Heaven, while constantly drunk, no longer cares what men, especially Harold, think of her. She admits to playing along with his disgusting rape fantasies in the bedroom, and even finds the humor in this big masculine man taking just a few minutes to complete the deed, and to the image of a buffalo stampede, no less. Maeve Ballentine even cites Mildred as a particularly strong reminder for her that feminism is still necessary in 2018, especially given how she describes married life with Harold.

The costume design of “Wanda June” is wonderful, with special attention to both the not-so-attractive fashions of the 1970s as well as key personal touches to give each character life. The costuming of Penelope in particular is outstanding in her endless leopard and zebra prints, giving the character power within the tacky tastes of Harold. Shuttle’s false turtleneck collar, revealed when taking off one layer of clothing, was a fantastic point of visual humor. Leah Mazur, scenic and costume designer, truly outdid herself for this show.

The only part of the presentation of the show that I personally was not excited about was the repeated use of projection over the stage of striking imagery. While the images, such as that of hyenas and the victims of shootings, could have added an extra layer of depth to “Wanda June,” the set’s platform and patterned paint obscured them, making some images a bit too hard to make out. In addition, at a few moments in the play, audio played to emphasize points that Director Mark Rhoda thought were important. This included, most notably, the audio of a 911 call during a mass shooting. While I understood what Rhoda was trying to get at, since at this point in the show there was conflict around a gun given to Paul by Harold, it ended up feeling contrived, especially since the action of the scene paused for the audio and accompanying visuals.

The actors themselves were fantastic. Nadia Gaylin’s Penelope transformed throughout the play as she gained confidence. Kevin Glotfelty and Jake Jaffe’s Harold and Looseleaf bounced off of each other with strong chemistry and physical humor. Jeanette Warren’s Siegfried Von Konigswald was such a believable Nazi that at times she disappeared into the role in a wonderful, yet scary, way. JW Ruth’s Woodly was a believable meek hippie, embodying the times, while Connor Heveron’s Shuttle was heartbreaking in his hero-worship of Harold. The characters melded together into a convincing tableau.

Some feathers were ruffled in the after-show talkback concerning things said and not said in this interpretation of the play. One audience member in particular took the mention of an omitted racial slur as an opportunity to mention how white people are not allowed to say it, but black people are. Another audience member challenged the idea presented by Rhoda that “Wanda June” in fact does challenge most of the ills of modern society, while presenting the play to us with a mostly white cast, save one cast member of mixed race. While overall the play was enjoyable, issues of representation are an important at SMCM, and it was hard to overlook that when hunting Africans for sport and the rape of indigenous peoples was mentioned by the character of Harold at several points in the play. Hopefully, TFMS will take that particular criticism to heart in casting future shows.

“Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., ran from Nov. 14-18 in the Bruce Davies Theatre.

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