God of Carnage (originally Le Dieu du carnage) is a contemporary and singularly distinct production written by French playwright Yasmini Reza that explores the dynamics between two sets of parents - one of whose child has seriously injured the other in a public park - who meet to discuss the matter in a 'civilized' manner. But as the evening transpires, the parents become increasingly childish, resulting with the evening devolving into chaos and recrimination.
Originally performed in Paris in 2006, Christopher Hampton's English translation of the play led to a 2009 Broadway production starring Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Marica Gay Harden, with all four actors nominated for Tony Awards. Acclaimed director Roman Polanksi also directed a 2011 film adaptation and shortened the title to Carnage.
It is within this historical background that director Robin Devereaux brings her own translation of this ambitious work to the Pit & Balcony stage from January 25-27 and February 1-3 with a cast consisting of Dawn Goodrow Morrell and Sheriff Bill Federspiel performing as set of parents known as The Novaks; and Erinn Holm with Dave Ryan taking on the characters of the Raleighs.
Given the multi-faceted manner in which the dynamics of this production intersect, coupled with the timeliness of the subject matter, I sat down with both Director & Cast to discuss the challenges and revelations involved with bringing such a tightly developed script to the Pit & Balcony stage.
Review: Given the increase of violence perpetrated both upon and by children & minors, what do you feel are the most compelling themes explored and insights rendered by this play into this disturbing trend?
Devereaux: GOD OF CARNAGE shows two sets of parents playing “the blame game” because they are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the violent (both physical and verbal) behavior of their respective children. They are also unwilling to look at how they themselves have contributed to the ways their children have chosen to act and react. While the play handles this serious subject with some hilarity, the underlying message is that no one is innocent - we are all responsible for how we treat one another, and how we teach our children to treat others.
Ryan: When people normally talk about violence in children they tend to look at the children involved and examine it as if it were only a 'children's problem' of at fault youth going astray. They tend to forget and don't realize that as adults, they raise the children, so the way the adults act towards each other will affect how the children react with one another.
Federspiel: To me what this play says is that people aren't really honest with themselves and who they really are. With a little bit of emotion rising to the surface you start to see their true character come out; so maybe the intention in the beginning is to do the right thing, but that turns out to be a catalyst to bring these other less civilized qualities out in each of them.
Review: Both sets of parents attempt to meet face-to-face in order to address a violent act involving their offspring in a civilized manner. What are some of the key insights fashioned that each of you attempt to bring forth from both your characters and the tone of the script?
Morrell: It's human nature to want to defend one's own as well as one's self. But what I do like about the foundation of this story line is that these parents do meet - one set of parents wants to meet the other - so at least there is something to start a resolution to the problem. This is how they used to do it when problems surfaced in neighborhoods; but that doesn't happen a lot now. People and neighbors don't know each other.
These characters take a step in that direction to correct the children; but then become defensive and defend their own child's actions right away. They don't see or know how it devolves into the chaos that happens during the course of the evening.
Holm: What I find powerful is that this play breaks down the various veneers we put out to the world in terms of social graces. The idea of courtesy and creating a culture of respect is present in the very beginning, but then an aire of contempt between the two couples and families surfaces which causes them to turn on themselves. As Dawn noted, it reveals problems within the family unit itself. There aren't even teams involved. One moment there is a united front and all of a sudden each character is turning on and at each other. This play flows and lives very much 'in the moment'.
Devereaux: GOD OF CARNAGE is like a little dose of reality television for the stage. As the play begins we are immediately are dropped into the middle of a conversation between the Raleighs and the Novaks regarding their sons altercation, which results in one of the children losing two teeth. While outwardly it's apparent the couples are being very polite and understanding about the matter, it's obvious from the beginning there is no love lost between them.
There is an underlying sense of station, of status, of who is wealthier, better placed socially, educationally. It provides a definite rub. And at the root of it all is something most of us can empathize with: that primal need to protect our own children. What grinds a parent more than another parent pointing out what's wrong, less than, weird, lacking in their child? While the parents in GOD OF CARNAGE may have some good intentions, their true colors come out as the play progresses and we see that for all their refinement or money or education they all behave badly and are unwilling to truly make any amends.
The play shows that we all have warts, we all make mistakes and that we all bleed- but also that basically everyone has a good heart and wants to do the right thing - even though, as humans, we bungle that a lot.
Review: What do you feel is the biggest challenge involved with effectively bringing this production to the stage?
Devereaux: This piece is a definite ensemble piece, and at the onset I was worried about the skill sets of potential actors. Would one actor outshine another? Would I have one that was a bit weaker than the others? I would have to say that I've been blessed to have a cast of strong individual actors who are able to hold their own with the others and who are perfect in their roles. Our biggest challenge is simply time. The third show of the Pit and Balcony season comes into production at holiday time, shortening time for rehearsals. Fortunately, we have a seasoned, professional, dedicated cast and they are busily memorizing lines, blocking and bringing these difficult, layered characters to life.
Morrell: In reading this script out I found many things about my character that I could truly relate to, because she is a 'save the world' type of character, trying to save Africa and the children of African, and acting as a peacemaker median within the group.
Ryan: She possesses a Jane Fonda type of personality so in the production it works well in the Battles of Wits and Battles of Brawn.
Holm: There is a conflict on every single level with these characters - competition between the sexes, kinship between the sexes; competition with education level and economic class. There is some type of rocking on the boat at each level and something to dislike about the characters on each level, as well as within the couples.
Federspiel: From an audience perspective I feel the audience will see within these characters something not really good about themselves, and be able to reflect upon that thing afterwards. Like, 'Yeah - I kinda talk to my wife that way once in a while'. So hopefully they will reflect on how they behave. After all, any parent could be faced with this situation in any community - their kid had his front teeth knocked out with a stick by another kid - how do we deal with it?
The audience will see this prism of four people involved with this situation from all angles; and that gives them the opportunity to sit back and reflect about how they would deal with the type of situation involving these poor kids.
Review: Seeing as this was originally written by a French playwright and there are bound to be different nuances & meanings with language that are lost in translation, as it were; do you sense any cultural differences in terms of how violence is perceived, processed, and addressed or reacted upon by these divergent French and American cultures?
Ryan: There is a conflict of interest involved here that is pivotal. The couples want to be united for the sake of their child, but they also want to be united in form of gender - similar to the bong from a group of gang members, or mother who truly care what's going on. And in this sense its very much like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Africa is a theme in the show, as the character of Veronica claims to be a scholar of Africa. But at our core, we are all as savage as the next person.
There is an infamous vomiting scene in this production that I feel underscores the visceral nature of the play. It draws the audience in or pushes them away, so this is almost a divisive play depending on which side your sensibilities lay, and that can be very challenging to portray.
Devereaux: This script was translated and “Americanized”, if you will, by Christopher Hampton, British playwright, screen writer and film director. He is best known for his play based on the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the film version Dangerous Liaisons. He is a skilled writer, and his English version of the script translates well into our society. The theme of a parent protecting and standing up for his or her child is a universal one, as well as that of the “Golden Rule” of treating others as you would be treated, and of parents responsibility to teach their children how to live among others in the world.
As a director, I am grateful for the opportunity to work with a Tony Award-winning script and a talented cast. It's really a dream to work on a piece that intimately touches us at our hearts, with an awareness of our fierceness, sense of pride, our fears about ourselves, our insecurities. It is a script that is unafraid to show us at our worst, as humans just trying to do the right thing, and accomplishing it in a way that helps us laugh at ourselves.
Tickets for God of Carnage presented by Pit & Balcony Theatre are available by calling 989-754-6587 or online at www.pitandbalconytheatre.com