BWW Reviews: Brilliant GOD OF CARNAGE at American Stage

BWW Reviews: Brilliant GOD OF CARNAGE at American Stage

The phrase "Karla Hartley has done it again" has been said so often that it should be copyrighted. She is a true gift to the Bay Area, and for years audiences and artists alike have been thankful for her guidance in numerous shows. Everything she does is top of the line, whether it's direction, lighting, sound design, running a theatre company, or for anyone who had the pleasure of seeing her heartbreaking turn in "'Night Mother" a couple of years back, performance. There is nothing she can't do. And with the haunting "Inventing Van Gogh" at Jobsite opening last week, and now with the brilliantly biting production of GOD OF CARNAGE at American Stage, she is on a roll. So yes, Karla Hartley has done it again.

Hartley could be called the God of Blocking, and with GOD OF CARNAGE, her direction has helped to create an astonishing, smart, ferociously funny show.

Yasmina Reza's script is rightfully considered one of the finest plays of the modern era. The storyline couldn't be any simpler. A well-to-do couple--Alan and Annette Raleigh--are in the stylishly decorated Brooklyn apartment of another couple--Michael and Veronica Nova--to deal with an incident involving their sons (the Raleigh's 11-year-old, "armed" with a stick, "disfigured" Novak's son by knocking out two teeth). But what follows is one of the funniest, sharpest, most acerbic and unpredictable shows in recent memory. In some ways, it resembles "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" with its pair of battling married couples, its table-turning game playing (it's sometimes like chess meets Twister) and the use of alcohol as a vehicle to shed the characters' inhibitions. In GOD OF CARNAGE, the characters are quite laughingly horrid and hilariously awful, and each one gets their moment to sink to the lowest of low behaviors. Reza's theme is clear--that no matter how much art we may have, or Cuban cigars, or expensive rum, modern men and women are really no better, no more evolved than Neanderthals.

Hartley's direction is exemplary. The show takes place in a single location without any set changes (or intermission), and the characters' movement is beautifully staged like a fox-trot of bad manners. Hartley is also blessed to have one beast of an ensemble, without a weak link, or even a slightly dim one, on board. Seeing this fine acting quartet in top form is what going to the theatre is all about.

Billy Edwards plays the starchy Alan Raleigh--a preoccupied businessman with a shark smile who, with his constant phone interruptions, may be the rudest houseguest imaginable. Edwards looks like an angular Bradley Cooper, and his Alan comes across as a stuffy, vacuous asp. Whenever his phone goes off with an annoying bell-like ringtone, he jumps like one of Pavlov's dogs. The phone might as well be glued to his ear, and Edwards fearlessly, unblinkingly hurdles head first into his character's more irritating tendencies.

Alan's wife, Annette ("Woof-Woof"), is played by the commanding Katherine Michelle Tanner. Tanner is a force of nature onstage and goes through quite an emotional rollercoaster ride--from phony smiles, to sickliness, to anger, to disgust, and finally to drunken elation turned liberation. We witness all of this in real time, and we marvel at the rare actress who can successfully pull this off with such believability.

Tanner's Annette is also given one of the stage's great moments, certainly a moment that theatergoers will be discussing for a long time coming. If you have ever seen the Barf-O-Rama in the movie "Stand By Me," then you will know what I am talking about. Tanner owns this vomitus moment, and you can't keep your eyes off the Vesuvius that erupts in front of us. This isn't like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," where the queasy Honey must run to the offstage bathroom to lose her cookies; no, this is right in front of us, as realistic-looking as is possible, as we see the regurgitating Old Faithful hilariously spew all over art books in the immaculate Novak abode. Not even the bad taste films of the great John Waters could match the dark hilarity of this watershed and puke-soaked moment.

Cathy Schenkelberg more than holds her own with her portrayal of Veronica. Although the cliché would be that she runs the gamut of emotions from A to Z, that is not entirely accurate here. Schenkelberg more than runs that gamut; she's so extreme in all emotional directions that her character goes off the charts and now runs the gamut of emotions from A to 17. She can't even stay in the alphabet.

As Veronica's rodent-phobic schlubby hubby, Michael, Brian Shea stands out as the funniest of a very funny lot. His timing is flawless, and a mere throwaway line in his grasp is comic gold. His performance is a hilarious chef-d'oeuvre.

Scott Cooper's set design is superb--almost like a game board for the sparring couples. The Novaks' living room is elegant yet a bit sterile backed with an artsy aluminum wall that isn't very homey; everything is in place but something is off (as is the obvious case with the Novaks). The apartment is filled with stacks of the aforementioned art books, Tulips in vases and a trendy sculpture, a Peter Wright original, that looks both ancient and modern, which appropriately fits the we're-all-Neanderthals theme of the play. [Prop master Jerid Fox worked directly with the Duncan McClellan Gallery; Peter Wright's glass/marble work in question, "Potoro/Mezcala," which is on stage for the duration of the show, is actually available for purchase from American Stage.]

Mike Wood's lighting is impeccable as always, and Trish Kelley's costumes nicely showcase the differences in each character.

GOD OF CARNAGE is one of the fastest, most fulfilling 85 minutes you will ever experience as an audience member. And much of the credit must go to the captain of this riotous voyage, Karla Hartley. There is a reason she is in such high demand. And with GOD OF CARNAGE, the last show of American Stage's season, she and her cast have delivered a work that is nothing short of a masterpiece. Yes, Karla Hartley has done it again.

GOD OF CARNAGE at American Stage runs through Sunday, August 10th. For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY (7529).

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