World Premiere of Vonnegut’s ‘Make Up Your Mind’ Shines at BCA (4 Stars)
Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Make Up Your Mind’; Written by Kurt Vonnegut; Assembled by Nicky Silver; Directed by Cliff Fannin Baker. Presented by the SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street Boston through November 30th.
If I were asked to describe “Kurt Vonnegut’s Make Up Your Mind” in one word, I suppose it would have to be: insane. Not in the clinical sense, mind you, but the third definition in Meriam Webster pretty much describes this show’s content – “extreme folly or unreasonableness.” Vonnegut’s heretofore unproduced play is now making its world premiere at the BCA, and it is very funny and extremely absurd – kind of an Americanized version of a Monty Python work or an extended sketch by the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. The SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production features a terrific comedic cast and they deliver the lightning paced material nearly flawlessly. Which is no easy trick, given that the material is not your standard theater fare.
The title refers to Make Up Your Mind, Inc., which is a new therapy concept devised by former telephone company employee and high school dropout Roland Stackhouse. The cornerstone of his psychological theory is that our greatest roadblock to achieving fulfillment is indecisiveness, and his surefire cure is terrorizing the indecisive into making decisions. He accomplishes this by employing a sociopathic legbreaker named Raymond, who trails his clients to see if they’re complying . If he catches them engaging in the behavior that they vowed to stop, he makes them pay with a literal vicious beating, the kind that results in broken bones and teeth. His clients include Mr. Fletcher, a wealthy businessman who can’t stop smoking (and seems to take a perverse joy in his beatings); a man of the cloth who has lost his faith; and his newest client, Karen Finch, who can’t seem to make up her mind about even the most benign decisions, such as what to order for lunch. Finch is also the wife of Alonzo Finch, apparently the world’s wealthiest man, since he has just bought South Korea with the intention of turning it into a giant golf course.
The play is set almost entirely in Stackhouse’s office, (except for the final scene) and the setting works well as a device for characters to pop in, add to the insanity and further the equally insane plot, then check back out, leaving the beleagured “therapist” to figure out how to solve his next crisis. And everything is a crisis. Because it’s an absurd work, the problems of its characters have far reaching implications, such as when a brief affair turns Stackhouse and Mrs. Finch into international porn stars overnight. Many of the circumstances begin as what appear to be throwaway jokes, but end up becoming central to a character’s development or the plot (for instance, a running gag throughout the show involves Stackhouse’s marriage to an Eskimo).
In order for this type of show to work, there needs to be a strong director and an able group of performers, and this show has both. There are some very good comic performances in this production, and the cast is uniformly strong, beginning with Barlow Adamson as Stackhouse. He has a simmering anger towards his father beneath his desire to help the world get over its indecisiveness problem, and he’s very effective as a sort of straight man to the other absurd characters in the cast. His scheming and manipulative marriage counselor father (who works down the hall) is played by Ross Bickell, and he is very funny despite his being utterly despicable. Tracy Goss is terrific as the aging beauty who can’t make up her mind (and as Roland’s accidental love interest). Richard Snee plays businessman Fletcher as well as Kurt Vonnegut (who makes several appearances to deliver his observations on the proceedings), and his deadpan delivery made for the best of the comic performances in my eyes.
The set is minimalist but inventive in that the walls are adorned with Vonnegut’s trademark “doodlings”. And there is also a screen at the rear of the stage that shows short ‘cartoons’ that illustrate plot points during set changes that serve the same function as Terry Gilliam’s work in Monty Python shorts and films. If you’re a Vonnegut fan, and are concerned that the interpretation of his work with lose something in the translation, don’t be. My friend who attended the show with me read all of Vonnegut’s work and assured me that Nicky Silver (who adapted the unfinished script) did a great job of conveying Vonnegut’s essence. This opinion was further supported by Vonnegut fans in the talkback with the director that followed.
The plot of ‘Make Up Your Mind’ is built upon absurd premises that hold together remarkably well, possibly because the pacing is so torrid. The absurdity of building a business based on the threat of beatings as therapy seems like a flimsy way to build a plot, but the show is a series of implausible plot changes that are so damn funny that you don’t care. This is not a show that requires deep analysis and is not nearly as thought provoking as its producers would have you believe. In the program and in the talkback that followed, there seemed to be a desire to push a theme that people have trouble connecting in today’s society (they absolutely do)and that this work somehow explores that theme (in a vague way). I really just enjoyed this show on its face and chose to take it exactly for what it was, and as the director described it after the show, “a cross between farce and absurdist theater”. As someone who doesn’t care much for farce as a comedic form, I can tell you that this is a lot funnier than most farce that I have seen, and despite its absurdity, more plausible in a silly way.
Run time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission. There will be cigarettes smoked during the performance. For more info go to http://www.speakeasystage.com/index.php