BWW Review: GOD OF CARNAGE at Theatre Harrisburg

BWW Review: GOD OF CARNAGE at Theatre Harrisburg

God of Carnage sounds like it could be the next Quentin Tarantino film. While there is a lack of actual physical carnage, Yasmina Reza's satire peels back the layers of forced civility, conventions of politeness, and good intentions. Underneath these layers God of Carnage illuminates humanity's constant struggle against baser instincts. This 2009 Tony Award winning play was described by the New York Times as "a study in the tension between civilized surface and savage instinct."

As two sets of parents come together to settle an incident between their young children, attempts to approach the situation rationally, diplomatically, and civilly quickly devolve into pillow-throwing, nausea-inducing, insult-hurling shouting matches. It's men against women, women against men, wives against husbands, couple against couple, and in the end, confronted with the truth that "people struggle until they're dead," they find themselves "always on their own everywhere."

Theatre Harrisburg sets the scene right from the beginning. The set puts the audience right in the living room of a Brooklyn home. The piles of books on art and culture, at first seem to be discarded and placed around the room at random. In the context of the dialogue and action, though, they become a symbol of Veronica's belief in civilization and perhaps a symptom of her desire to be seen as intelligent and morally superior. The furniture creates an interesting juxtaposition between comfort and style that echoes the differences between Veronica and her husband Michael. One might even come to the conclusion that Michael insisted on the comfortable sofa and armchair, while Veronica chose the rest of the available seating to evoke a sense of class rather than comfort.

Right from the beginning, the cast of God of Carnage creates an atmosphere of discomfort masked by friendliness. As the tension increases, the audience actually breathes a sigh of relief when, one by one, the masks slip, manners are forgotten, the bravado fades away, and truths are finally revealed.

Callie Alvanitakis is captivating in her role as Veronica. First impressions are of an intellectual woman who cares deeply about justice, victim's rights, and the "art of coexistence". Her delivery of the description of Veronica's book near the beginning of the show is reminiscent of the way in which many Ph.D. students talk about their dissertations-portraying a zealous academic demeanor. As Alvanitakis's character evolves (or devolves), her facial expressions and posture change to match her emotions and words perfectly. One of the best examples of her masterful portrayal of Veronica is the moment when she is shouting about the necessity of society and civilization while revealing her own savagery by pummeling her husband with a pillow.

Veronica's husband Michael is played by Dan Burke. Burke's Michael comes across as delightfully laid back and down to earth, particularly in comparison to the other characters. It seems as though is façade is perhaps less developed. His conversations with his mother, whose phone calls occasionally interrupt the living room drama, are punctuated with genuine concern for her well-being mixed with exasperation when she won't listen to him. In these moments, the audience may find some common ground with Michael as they reflect on conversations with their own parents over the years. The most challenging part of the role is the way in which Michael illuminates contradictions between the actions and behaviors sanctioned by civilized society and our instincts. One of the highlights in this production is Burke's delivery of Michael's revelation that he had a "gang" when he was a boy and even perpetrated violence against another boy (but in a way that was considered "acceptable" for boys at that age). In the end, forced to see himself as a "hamster murderer", even Michael loses his veneer of being the peace-maker.

Manuela Saxman portrays Annette, the mother of the boy who allegedly hit Veronica and Michael's son with a stick. Saxman's Annette hides a great deal behind her smile. It's subtle at first, but Saxman slowly lets the audience see the wide range of emotions hidden behind the smile. She does this in such a way that it heightens the sense of artifice at the beginning of the play and leads beautifully into the moment at which Annette really loses it and drops all pretense. The physicality Saxman uses in the role is extraordinary, allowing the audience to believe that she really is sick to her stomach and drunk several times throughout the play. The interaction between Saxman's Annette and Alvanitakis's Veronica is completely believable throughout the show as they move from two mothers trying to resolve a situation between their sons to two women seeing themselves and their husbands for who they really are.

Alan the lawyer is played by Gordon Einhorn. Alan is one of the most interesting characters at the beginning of the play. He freely admits that his son is a savage, and he constantly plays the lawyer, arguing over the semantics of every little word in the argument. Alan's monologue about the state of humanity struggling until they die is skillfully delivered by Einhorn, evoking a sense of fatalism in the midst of conflict. If there was anything lacking in Einhorn's performance it would be a lack of passion. His conversations on his ever-ringing phone did not have the firmness, confidence, and passion that one would expect from a lawyer attempting to protect one of his clients. What does come out nicely in Einhorn's Alan is the way in which he tries to deny culpability in his personal and professional life. His son can't be blamed for his actions because he can't understand the consequences of those actions, just like his client, a pharmaceutical company, can't be held responsible for the side effects of a particular drug.

The cast had wonderful timing and pacing throughout the majority of the production, moving the audience along with them as they experienced the dissolution of rationality and relationship. What could be a dark and fatalistic theatre experience is punctuated by moments of hilarity. In his director's note, Tom Hostetter comments, "Ms. Reza dares us to laugh and take voyeuristic pleasure in seeing adults acting like rude, petulant children." Hostetter should be applauded for his staging of this production. The audience viscerally experiences one of the first overt hints of animosity as Alan and Michael approach each other from opposite sides of the stage to center stage like two alpha wolves challenging one another. What truly set this production apart, though, was the staging at the end of the show. As each of them is completely stripped of their civil façade, the actors stand and sit in silence, apart from one another, and in partial darkness. In the end, as they realize just how alike they are at the most basic level, they find themselves as Michael says "we're always on our own! Everywhere!"

Theatre Harrisburg's production God of Carnage will keep audiences laughing while marveling at how such a serious topic can be so authentically funny. Performances run through January 28th. Tickets for this superbly staged and acted show can be purchased by calling 214-ARTS or visiting www.theatreharrisburg.com/shows/.

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