In Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night,” no one is exactly whom they appear to be.
There’s a moment in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1966 novel “Mother Night,” faithfully re-created in Brian Katz’ new stage adaptation for Custom Made Theatre Company, in which Howard Campbell, narrator and anti-hero, is asked which of three symbols now represents his primary allegiance: the stars and stripes, the hammer and sickle or the swastika.
It’s a fair question: the fictional Campbell, an American playwright in Germany married to a German actress when World War II broke out, became a Nazi propagandist. But he was also an American spy.
In fact, nobody in “Mother Night” is exactly who they seem to be: not the painter Kraft, Campbell’s neighbor in the New York apartment building where he has found postwar refuge as an anonymous citizen (or so he’d hoped); not Campbell’s adored and long-presumed-dead German wife who suddenly seems to reappear in New York; not the discredited dentist Dr. Jones; not the American army officer who recruited Campbell to be an “American intelligence agent”; not most of the other oddball and eccentric World War II and Cold War-era characters—communist agents, white supremacists, Israeli and American Jews, Holocaust survivors, Nazis (including historical figures Goebbels, Hoess and Eichmann) and military men, most of them raving fanatics of one stripe or another—who comprise this dark, funny and wonderfully circuitous 20th-century satire.
“I think ‘Mother Night’ can horrify you and definitely make you laugh,” says Katz, cofounder (with Leah Abrams, in 1998) and artistic director of the downtown theater Custom Made. He’d loved the novels of Vonnegut when he’d first read them as a teenager growing up in Chicago; they helped form his worldview. “Vonnegut is a moralistic writer who doesn’t believe in black and white,” he says.
Interning at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Katz went on to a directing career, including, a few seasons ago, helming an adaptation (by Eric Simonson) of Vonnegut’s most famous novel, “Slaughterhouse Five,” at Custom Made. But he’d been thinking since college that “Mother Night,” Vonnegut’s third book, would make a great play, with its strong—albeit unreliable—narrator, Campbell, and its metafictional elements. And the estate of Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007, was “ridiculously sweet,” says Katz, about giving Custom Made the rights, once it had been determined that they wouldn’t interfere with the 1996 Nick Nolte movie version.
Vonnegut published 14 novels, three short story collections, five plays and five non-fiction books in total and was famously influenced by his experiences as a German captive during World War II, during which he lived through the Allied fire bombing of Dresden. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote, “Vonnegut is George Orwell, Dr. Caligari and Flash Gordon compounded into one writer… a zany but moral mad scientist.…‘Mother Night’ is a daring challenge to our moral sense.”
The “Mother Night” story, notes Katz, is a psychological one, and it’s existentialist, too: It asks, if a crime is committed for a greater good, what happens if the crime is worse than the greater good? The idea, elaborates Katz, is that a person must choose, and “What we do is what we become.” Or, put differently: “We are what we pretend to be.”
“Vonnegut’s structure is very tight,” Katz continues. “The minute you start changing things around you’re in trouble.” The novel is intricately packed with idiosyncratic characters, hilarious stories, ironic plot twists, tangents and digressions, crisp comedic dialogue and a timeline that meanders, nonlinearly, from 1961—with Campbell, age 48, in a Jerusalem jail, accused by Israel of war crimes—to the early ’30s and back. Katz found he needed to delete a few characters and about five or six chapters to keep the script focused. Actor Chris Morrell plays Howard Campbell, with a six-member ensemble playing multiple roles apiece. The challenges for Katz, in adapting, included retaining all the thematic elements while also being willing to let go of some items, such as an African-American Nazi called the “black fuehrer.” He also had to make sure the many characters are individualized—even though their voices in the novel are all filtered through Campbell’s wry, almost affectless narration—while never losing Vonnegut’s own distinctive voice.
Custom Made started this project during the Obama administration, when, says Katz, “Yes, there were racists and horrible people in the world, but history seemed to be going in the right direction. Now, with swastikas everywhere, and white supremacists emboldened to not hide themselves, [a play like this, about Nazis] is a little more urgent.” Vonnegut, asserts Katz, did not believe that any nation or people are any better than any others. “He believed patriotism and nationalism have no place—which feels like a very relevant [concept] right now.”
In “Mother Night,” Howard Campbell, asked to select among the three nationalist symbols representing the United States, the USSR and Nazi Germany, says flatly, “They all mean the same to me. Hooray, hooray and hooray.”
May 28 → June 24
Custom Made Theatre Company
533 Sutter St., San Francisco