Sunday, April 28, 2013

ASF: "God of Carnage"

French playwright Yasmina Reza came to international prominence in 1996 with Christopher Hampton's translation of Art, a play in which three friends argue about the purchase and the artistic value of an all white painting that becomes an excuse for personal attacks and affords Ms. Reza a chance to assess the nature of friendship.

Mr. Hampton, a distinguished playwright himself, is arguably one of today's most accomplished translators, whose adaptations into English capture Ms. Reza'a satiric bite and social commentary in deceptively simple language, giving actors ample ammunition to fire at one another and leave audiences ruminating on her serious issues while they might see themselves reflected on stage and catch themselves laughing at the savage behavior of seemingly civilized characters.

Ms. Reza's multi-award winning God of Carnage -- in Mr. Hampton's astutely acrid translation -- is being performed in an uninterrupted 90 minutes by a quartet of actors whose superficial civility towards one another degenerates into ludicrous comical and vicious attacks. Under Susan Willis' sharp direction in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre, the intimate performance space enhances audience involvement.

As the play opens, two couples are calmly discussing what they should do about a schoolyard fight between their two sons -- who is to blame? should they intervene? should the boys work it out on their own? -- If only their children could act the way their parents do: reasonably, moderately, exercising the "art of coexistence". As if!

In almost the first line of dialogue, with her husband Michael's [Ian Bedford] support, Veronica [Jennifer Barnhart] sets thing rolling by claiming that their son 's injuries were inflicted by the other boy "armed with a stick"; the implications of that language get Alan [Anthony Marble] and Annette [Michelle Shupe] on the defensive for their son, and within a few minutes of holding on to the social niceties, sleeves are rolled up and the fight is on in earnest, each couple defending their son and with small personal revelations, showing their true colors.

Though the children never appear on stage, their parents describe the brief skirmish in increasingly barbed language -- armed, hooligan, savage, etc.; in contrast, the extended passive-aggressive "art of coexistence" expressed in reasonable and moderate terms disintegrates to figurative and actual nausea and metaphorical bloodletting, in essence more damaging than a couple of minor bruises. -- For all of their education, material success and outward sophistication, they are pretty shallow people, types we might come across in real life. -- And we laugh at them because what they do is so familiar; people behaving badly doesn't happen only on reality television.

The acting ensemble on the Octagon Stage is so fine-tuned that it's almost as if the audience was eavesdropping; their speech is completely natural and behavior so nuanced that each discovery emerges credibly at these couples' first meeting: it is a get-to-know-you exercise that changes to a no-holds-barred slugfest leaving everyone wounded and helpless.

Mr. Marble depicts Alan as an obsessive workaholic lawyer whose cellphone conversations interrupt the action so frequently to the consternation of the others; it is easy to see how his impolite behavior and aggressive demeanor with the callers has impacted both his marriage and his son; but we can;t help but laugh at his expense.  -- Ms. Shupe makes a striking debut on the ASF stage as Alan's uptight wife Annette who is in "wealth management" whatever that is; but after more than a few drinks, the gloves come off much to everyone's delight. In vino veritas...for all of them.

As Veronica, Ms. Barnhart exudes a social liberal's confidence: an art lover who is also writing a book about the genocide in Darfur, and whose furniture is upholstered in animal skins reflected in a giant Darwinian "survival of the fittest" painting that dominates the scene and serves as a metaphor for the play's content. Completely befuddled by other people not sharing her passion for social justice, her blindness to the real needs of others and Ms. Barnhart's exquisite comic delivery make these contradictions palpable and outrageously funny. -- Mr. Bedford appears at first to acquiesce to almost anything as Michael, and his vacillation  is contagious as each couple's stance is tested and shifts of allegiance rule the day. A "soft hardware" salesman with a vulnerable side that comes across on occasion to hearty laughter from the audience, his manner catches us off guard.

With each small personal revelation that peels away any protective wall, they find ways of bonding -- husbands and wives switch allegiances, the men bond with each other as do the women, taking sides, playing trump cards, and using tactics to win at all costs -- but have to remind themselves periodically of the purpose of their meeting: their kids.

Alan's claim that "the god of carnage has ruled since the dawn of's kill or be killed" is fulfilled in Ms. Reza's script as this foursome inflict damage to fragile egos, entitlement, greed, and pretentious disregard of the effects of their actions. -- Not a compliment to society as we live in it. Reflecting the "nanny state" of America, these seemingly well-intentioned combatants remain unaware of the effect they have on their children who, left to their own devices, would probably have already moved on from their schoolyard spat.