Descending from superficial civility to the basest satire, Backyard Renaissance’s God of Carnage opens the floodgates on disheveled, disfigured drama and who we are behind closed doors when we are forced to reckon with our fears and frustrations.
Written by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton, the dark comedy follows two couples, Annette and Alan Raleigh and Veronica and Michael Novak, as they have a sitdown meeting following a playground skirmish between their two 11 year olds. Bearing carefully controlled politeness, the four navigate a written statement about the event – was Henry “armed” with a stick when he hit Benjamin, or was he “furnishing” one? The four each have their own personalities. Veronica (Jessica John) wears her integrity and superiority as a mother and social justice writer as a badge of honor, while her husband, Michael (MJ Sieber), is a wholesaler who keeps his true, inner self buttoned up. Alan (Francis Gercke) is a pompous lawyer for pharmaceutical executives, while his wife Annette (Keiko Green) maintains a picture perfect home and family and engages in “wealth management.” They are two seemingly happy duos… that is, until blame and judgment begin to surface in this 90-minute no-intermission thrill ride.
Under director Rob Lutfy and associate director Hannah Meade’s tutelage, each of the four actors capitalizes deftly on the more carnal and instinctual darknesses buried within us. One by one, John, Sieber, Gercke, and Green each have their own opportunities to shine in unhinged glory. Alliances shift, carefully constructed facades devolve, moments of tension spiral and knot, the guise of polite society deteriorates, and the laughs received are well earned.
From a direction perspective, the vision for this production is clear and fruitful. Mirrored hand moments and expressions, quippy line delivery, moments of tense silence, and utter chaos are well leveraged from start to finish, yet the dramatized characters are, while being outrageous, also recognizable. We all know someone whose hand is attached to its cell phone, who can’t be bothered to maintain politeness, who isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade, or who topples from sobriety into a puddle with just a glass or two; those characters deliciously come to life before us on the Tenth Avenue Arts Center stage.
Another highlight is the scenic design. Created by Yi-Chien Lee, the entire show takes place within the Novak home, which is smartly dressed with a bar cart, posh couch and leather seating, decor pieces which include a large vase of yellow tulips, and a large marble table with carefully curated piles of books. The room itself is a large framed cube with brass metal edging, emblematic of a glass box into which the audience is peering. In an elemental call-out to the plight of the domestic pet (an escapee hamster, in this case, for those who know the story) as well as to the playground upon which the predicating assault took place, the floor is padded with dark wood chips which ebb and flow near the corners of the gilded cage. Stretching across the back wall is a large suspended canvas featuring sprawling juvenile crayon and pencil sketches. There is a lot of symbolism in the details, and these are illuminated throughout the production to effective means (just keep an eye on the sculpture on the table, if you’re wondering what I mean).
Like any production, this iteration of God of Carnage is an amalgamation of creative components. This play includes lighting by Chris Rynne, sound design and fight choreography by George Ye, and costumes by Jessica John Gercke, as well as technical/backstage work by Chad Ryan, Kate Rose Reynolds, Anna Younce, and Liam Sullivan.
Delightful in its degeneration as well as for being a satirical examination of the human condition and the many ways in which we have infinite room to grow, Backyard Renaissance’s presentation of God of Carnage runs at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center through March 25.