Theater Review: “The God of Carnage”
Dan Stearns, Jan Guarino, Jay O. Millman, and Susan Sanford in God of Carnage. Photo by Jay Paul.
French dramatist Yasmina Reza’s “The God of Carnage,” now playing at Barksdale Theatre with the “Oh snap!” entertainment of a “Real Housewives” beat down, oozes in nihilism. Take away the Gucci bags and Manolo Blahniks, the West End suburban McMansion, and gas-guzzling Chevy SUV, and what you’ll have left over is a Neanderthal roaming around Short Pump.
Reza belongs to a school of literary thought known as “Deconstruction.” She dramatizes this abstract concept in her play “Art,” recently produced by Sycamore Rouge and Richmond Shakespeare last April, but more explicitly personifies this philosophy in “The God of Carnage.”
Using this play, now cinematized into a major motion picture titled “Carnage,” as a vehicle to expose social constructions around class identity, Reza particularly enjoys demystifying the bourgeoisie. Tearing away two hundred years of industrial progress that democratized prosperity, and therefore, arguably culture, among the masses, Reza shows us that we are still as crude and unapologetically uncouth as our peasant ancestors.
In “Carnage,” two seemingly cultured families dispense with civilized conversation, opting to throw around swear words as frequently as punches in a boxing match as they argue over their sons’ physical altercation in a park, which resulted in the loss of one child’s two teeth.
Director Bo Wilson, who has borrowed the Americanized edition of Christopher Hampton’s translation of Reza’s French script, contrasts the rival families – Michael and Veronica Novak versus Alan and Annette Raleigh – more distinctly then they were on Broadway, pitting the nouveau riche against the blue bloods in a living room brawl more suited for a playground.
Sarah Grady’s costume design perpetuates their apparent pedigree differences. She dresses Alan (Dan Stearns) and Annette (Jan Guarino) in apparel easily purchased from Nordstrom. However, Michael (Jay O. Millman) sports a frumpy, maroon cardigan, and corduroy pants, and she places Veronica (Susan Sanford) in a dress that probably came off the discount rack at the Fashion Bug.
Wilson’s interpretation captures the animosity between the two warring families more believably than if they were homogenized. But the costume design combined with Millman’s right-from-the-start brutish characterization of Michael give me the feeling that only the Novaks are the true phonies, when, on the contrary, we should sense both couples hide under the pretense of civility as each one descends into a temper tantrum.
In general, though, this spryly acted quartet of seething adults evenly balances the physical, vitriolic leaps and lunges with Reza’s spitfire critiques on social etiquette: “Courtesy is a waste of time, it weakens you and undermines you,” Veronica admits, or “Let me remind you, might was right,” Alan retorts. (Sure hope these people don’t show up at your daughter’s cotillion!)
Still, mercilessly amusing as heated crossfire, the best laughs of the evening come from Millman’s Michael when he admits Veronica has tried to pass him off as a liberal, then ripping off the lion skin tapestry from the wall and wearing it like a caveman. Sanford’s Veronica is hilarious when she throws herself at her husband after he mocks her interest in African martyrdom. (She is a specialist on the ancient African civilization of Sheba.)
True, some veteran Barksdale audience members may be offended by the profanity, but the performance succeeds at those burning moments when gentlemen make lewd comments and ladies throw purses and smash yellow tulips across Christian Hershey’s wildly hot, African art decorated apartment, supported by Lynne M. Hartman’s blood-boiling, Saharan lighting design.
Beware, the play becomes grotesque as well when Guarino’s Annette graphically vomits on stage, eliciting uproarious laughter. But don’t let stodgy bourgeois prejudices toward theater stop you from experiencing the offensive vulgarity that exists underneath polite society.
“The God of Carnage” runs through March 11th, 2012 at Barksdale’s Willow Lawn. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.barksdalerichmond.org/
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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