illustration: C. Daum
A dead hamster runs through it. Not literally, of course. The departed creature is a thread that gets pulled out, helping to unravel relationships in Yasmina Reza’s Tony award-winning “God of Carnage,” in which actions are not as central as words.
“I had heard that the dialogue was reminiscent of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the Burton/Taylor classic, which I love,” said Todd Berry. “Based on that, I knew it would be a challenge for an actor, and I do love a good challenge.”
Berry (no relation) plays Alan Raleigh, whom he describes as “a cutthroat corporate lawyer.” Asked about similarities between himself and the character, he had to admit that he is, in fact, a local attorney. But he quickly made a distinction.
“While I am known to be quite zealous for my clients’ interests, I would never condone Alan’s actions or beliefs. I’m also very fortunate to have far better clients than Verenz-Pharma, the pharmaceutical company in the play,” Berry said. “Alan Raleigh is essentially a caricature of what can happen when one makes competition and money one’s sole driving ambition.”
Calling him a caricature implies a humorous slant to the play. There’s plenty to laugh at. But the work also provokes other emotions. Jeffrey Ford, who plays Michael Novak, explained that he was drawing on some unhappy memories of his father for the role.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how the audiences react to the show,” he said. “The only thing that is certain is that they’ll probably leave the theater hating my character, and me.”
Ford didn’t particularly set out to be cast in an unsympathetic role. He auditioned based on the director.
“I have worked with Sharon Russell and the rest of the cast before at the CT, and it has always been a wonderful experience,” Ford explained. “This is proving no different.”
The rehearsal I sat in on about two and a half weeks prior to opening night demonstrated Ford’s point. The actors were definitely in synch, and almost off book. Concerns about blocking and props were evident in questions and comments such as: “Do people use cups and saucers these days?” “I’m in the wrong spot.” “Do I sit down?” and “It’s my fault.”
While the actors were working out such details, Russell was actively directing. She told the actors, “Every time there’s a quiet place – you’ve got to keep up the energy. That comes through building up the antagonism.”
“The precision of words is important … central to your being,” she advised Berry, regarding dialogue with the client on the phone.
“While this is happening, you should start moving the plates and cups away. That would be a woman thing to do,” she told Denise Collins who plays Veronica Novak.
According to Collins, Veronica is “a principled, uptight, protective parent.” This description touches on the plot of “God of Carnage” which is set in the Novak living room. Coffee and clafouti are served, but the Raleighs aren’t exactly paying a social call. Their son has knocked out two of the Novak boy’s teeth. The two sets of parents are meeting to sort things out. Sorta.
“I enjoy taking on a character who is complex and trying to get into her head,” Collins said. “I think our political leanings are similar, but our personalities are very different in most ways.”
A rallying cry in the feminist movement was “The personal is political.” Gender was one of the themes I noted when watching the rehearsal, and more specifically, I felt the work explores the acceptance of violence as a male rite of passage.
“Power dynamics are central,” Collins claims, “as that is seen through the ways that these people talk to each other, the way they view the conflict between the children, the lawsuit on the phone, the subject of Veronica’s books, the relationships between the spouses…”
Ford believes, “The play is almost schitzoprenic in regard to theme; it continually keeps the audience (and the actors) off balance with its shifting points of view and alliances. It also leaves a lot of the interpretation completely in the attitudes of the viewer.”
“What struck me about the play was its idea of the essential selfishness of humans, which we all try to improve–or, as in the case of these characters, suppress/hide through the different masks we wear,” Berry said. “This play is a fascinating examination of the darker side of human nature, and our collective and individual attempts to direct attention from that side.”
God of Carnage opens at 8:00 Friday, March 14th at The Terre Haute Community Theatre, 25th and Washington. Additional performances: March 15, 21 and 22 at 8:00 and March 16 and 23 at 2:30.