Kurt Vonnegut would have turned 91 this week and is surprisingly still producing new work, despite the fact that he passed away in 2007. His “newest” play, Kurt Vonnegut’s Make Up Your Mind (that’s the full official title), is currently receiving its world premiere with SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston. The play tells the story of Roland Stackhouse, proprietor of Make Up Your Mind, Inc., a company which helps indecisive people, well, make up their minds. It’s a very Vonnegutian high concept that recalls the absurdity of Harrison Bergeron.
Vonnegut himself even benefitted in a way from his own fictional services (which would not be beyond the realm of possibility in a Kurt Vonnegut story): he actually wrote eleven different versions of the play from the late 1980s to early 1990s, and couldn’t quite make up his mind about which one he liked, or which one to further revise. And so all eleven versions were locked in a drawer in the hope that someday, he would decide—and now six years after his death, they are finally seeing the light of day.
It’s the kind of project that was forced to collect dust in the archives of the Vonnegut Estate until the right team got involved. Playwright Nicky Silver, perhaps best known for his work on Pterodactyls and on Broadway’s The Lyons, was brought in to essentially “assemble” the play’s produced script, based on the eleven extant versions. In an interview on SpeakEasy’s website, he talks about a bit about the process of culling bits and pieces from each different script—“I’ve had to add this phone call here, because of reality and the needs of the scene, but you’ll see that most of that phone call existed on page 42 of this draft and page 72 of that draft…so I’ve taken those pieces and edited them together where they needed to be”—and the importance of tracking each and every draft change and where it came from, all for the approval of the Vonnegut estate. And while Make Up Your Mind is one of Vonnegut’s less science fictional works, Vonnegut himself appears onstage throughout the show as a hologram, serving as a commenter on, and occasional guide to, the action of the play. This makes particular sense when considering Vonnegut’s frequent presence—as narrator, as character, or both—in his own work. While some writers are bothered when people get confused between the artist and the art, much of Vonnegut’s body of work makes this categorical separation nearly impossible, and makes his presence in the play a welcome addition. Nicky Silver was careful to craft the character Vonnegut’s dialogue and scenes entirely from Vonnegut’s first-person writings (so as to clearly differentiate between Vonnegut’s voice as a person, and the voices of his characters).
Vonnegut’s presence in the play is not just limited to the actor that portrays him (embodied with eerie precision by Richard Snee). The scenic design by Eric Levenson makes use of Vonnegut’s famous self-portraits and other scribblings (perhaps most famously found in Breakfast of Champions) to embellish the otherwise all-white playing space (and of course, the stark contrast of black line drawings on white reflects the play’s theme of rigid black-and-white decisiveness). The simplicity of the set helps add to the surreality of the play, and is further enhanced by Seaghan McKay’s video projections, which include a few fun animations of Vonnegut self-portraits and, perhaps my favorite moment of the entire evening, a beautiful field of what looks like sparkling stars, made up entirely of Vonnegut’s drawing of an asshole.
SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Kurt Vonnegut’s Make Up Your Mind plays through November 30 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA in Boston’s South End. While I understand that there are hopes and discussions of taking the play to New York City for a commercial run, there are currently no set plans for the play’s future outside of Boston (as far as I’m aware). But of course, that might change. In the meantime, those of you who live outside of the Boston area may have to, well, make up your mind pretty soon if you’d like to see the show in its limited run.
Thom Dunn is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. Full disclosure: his partner does occasionally direct shows with the aforementioned SpeakEasy Stage Company. Thom enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve whiskey and robots). He is a graduate of Clarion Writer’s Workshop at UCSD, and he firmly believes that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the single worst atrocity committed against mankind. Find out more at thomdunn.net.