“How many parents protecting their children become infantile themselves”
The Firehall Theatre continues their immensely entertaining “Late Night Series” with their newest offering, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. A darkly humorous comedy of manners for the modern age, the show is co-directed by Patrick Pearson and Therese Borkenhagen who also star alongside familiar Grand Forks faces Natasha Thomas and Daniel Dutot, and features set design and production by Jared Kinney.
This short biting play begins in the home of Veronica and Michael (Thomas and Pearson), concerned parents whose son has been attacked on the playground by another child. They’ve invited the other child’s parents, Annette and Allen (Borkenhagen and Dutot), to discuss the incident and decide on a proper course of action. What starts as a civilized discussion of playground bullying quickly devolves into a circus of screaming accusations, unexpected alliances, and the revelation of everyone’s true nature from beneath the patina of suburban civility.
As action unfolds, each character clearly establishes him or herself as a caricature of sorts, a representation of the different “types” of people who make up the typical suburban milieu. Allen, a lawyer, spends most of the afternoon on his cell phone trying to contain a brewing PR nightmare for a pharmaceutical company, one of his biggest clients. As he takes call after call, explaining to the worried execs how to “spin” the situation and place blame everywhere but on themselves and their product, we see a man who values blame over accountability. The truth about his client and what their product has done to trusting consumers is immaterial, as long as blame can be transferred to those who released the report about a dangerous drug’s side effects (supposedly to “manipulate” stock prices). He’s the perfect slimy PR guy, choosing every word with exact precision and constantly shifting focus from this real issue onto his talking points. When discussing his son’s behavior with Michael and Veronica, he is continually rephrasing the conversation, softening language and denying culpability. He is the first to suggest that extenuating circumstances be considered; since he cannot deny that his son was involved, he can once again twist the interpretation of the event so that the blame can at the very least be shared, if not transferred entirely, to the victim. Dutot is a capable Allen; this unsympathetic persona is not altogether different from other roles he has played in recent memory (Hollywood in The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, Benny in Rent) and he brings a certain cold charm to this otherwise unlikable cad.
Blame is also of primary concern to Veronica, a writer who has recently completed a book on the genocide in Darfur. There are no shades of gray in Veronica’s world: there are perpetrators and there are victims, and the suggestion that her child might have played both roles makes her bristle from the moment it is introduced. Veronica embodies the “sensitive liberal,” negotiating language use in her statement about the playground incident and using “I statements” to describe her feelings while pushing Allen and Annette to admit the guilt of their son (and their own guilt as well, as she tiptoes around the unspoken idea that Allen and Annette are responsible because of how they have raised their child). All the while, she delights in acting as the proper hostess, not only inviting the parents of their child’s attacker into their home, but buying tulips at the Korean deli (even though they are out of season) and serving an apple and pear clafouti, sharing the recipe and her “secret ingredient” as if the couples were old friends gathered together to catch up on the happenings of their lives. For Veronica, this show of decorum is shrewdly calculated; her sense of self-righteousness and superiority is fed by offering such charity to her enemies; the fact that they do not respond in the “proper” manner, by admitting guilt and agreeing to whatever punishment is deemed appropriate, only proves (in her mind, at least) that they are as terrible as she suspected – and by extension, that she is indeed as good as she thinks. Thomas’ Veronica starts out stiff and smiling, like a patient missionary, and devolves into a shrieking harpy, a transformation that is utterly enjoyable, with moments of true sadness. As she rants, telling the others not to “mix up the victims and the executioners,” the audience can see how much punishment and accepting blame consumes her mind. For someone who immerses herself in the great tragedies of the world, where no punishment could truly address the level of the victims’ suffering, this can lead only to helpless frustration and fury.
Pearson’s Michael is the most blue-collar of the group, a wholesaler dealing in household sundries like doorknobs and plumbing supplies, and he begins the play as a sort of domesticated companion to Veronica, his baser nature kept firmly in check. As the argument progresses, however, he too emerges from this shell to reveal underneath a common thug who fondly remembers a playground fight in which he beat up an older child in order to lead a gang of his playmates. Though he prides himself on his Neanderthal nature, his masculinity is repeatedly called into question because of his fear of rodents and the bumbling and cruel way he disposed of his children’s pet hamster. Though Pearson may not be as physically imposing as the role might call for, his portrayal of Michael has a certain amiable oafishness that is enjoyable to watch, especially as he and Allen reminisce about their boyhood altercations (much to Veronica’s chagrin). Although both do a fine job, it would have been interesting to see Pearson and Dutot playing each other’s roles. As noted before, Dutot is no stranger to slick, cerebral characters like Allen, and it would be interesting to see him take on this earthy, less predictable character. For Pearson, his good-natured charm works against the brutish “caveman” that is Michael, but might have transformed into something truly clever in bringing out the nuances of Allen’s smarmy, sleazy wordplay.
The last of the quartet, Annette, signifies all that is roiling and bubbling beneath the surface of polite suburban living. When the play begins, Annette is all smiles and politeness, accepting Veronica’s hospitality and reprimanding Allen’s rudeness and lack of interest in the proceedings. As the discussion becomes more heated, she tries to hold herself together, but eventually begins to feel nauseous, vomiting all over the floor (and one of Veronica’s prized art books). After she returns from the bathroom, the gloves are off: Annette accuses Michael and Veronica of being blind to their son’s complicity in the fight and tearing apart their show of insincere welcome. No one is safe from Annette’s pent-up rage, including her own husband, and when the four start drinking she becomes even more unhinged. Annette, as a character, IS suburban repression, and the vomit is a visceral depiction of her facade cracking open, with all of her rage and disappointment and frustration literally spilling out for all to see. Borkenhagen does a great job bringing this to life: in the early scenes, the tension can be seen in her face as she listens to Veronica and Michael’s concerns about the fight; when she returns from the bathroom, she gains a looseness in her body, as though she truly were uncoiling like an angered snake ready to strike.
It would be easy to dismiss the characters in this play as simple “types,” but what this show does very well is hold up a mirror to our culture: we live in a world where everyone wants to talk about blame but no one wants to talk about accountability, where parents often spend so much time protecting their children that they forget to teach their children discipline. It’s an ugly world, captured on stage marvelously in the ugly behavior of four very self-involved, self-deluded adults. It’s both amusing and uncomfortable to see people like our friends and neighbors, people like ourselves, put on display and then watching as they crack open and show off the very worst of themselves.
The show runs for two weeks, Friday and Saturday (January 25 & 26, and February 1 & 2) at 9:30 pm at the Firehall Theatre. Tickets for this Late Night Series production are only $8, and are available at the door. Congratulations to the cast and crew for a wonderful production.
Tags: bad behavior, comedy of manners, Daniel Dutot, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, God of Carnage, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jared Kinney, Late Night Series, late night theatre, Natasha Thomas, Patrick Pearson, suburban life, Therese Borkenhagen, yesmina reza