Theaterbatoring "God of Carnage"

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thoughts on
atlantis productions' "god of carnage"
by walter ang
july 24, 2012

Image from the interwebs.
morag cook's set design for "god of carnage" (for state theatre company of south australia's 2010 production) features a swath of red floor-to-ceiling wall treatment that merges with a swath of wall-to-wall red carpet, evoking a waterfall of blood flowing continuously into a river.

for the 2012 manila production by atlantis productions, lawyn cruz's set design shows a slight reconfiguration of the wall treatment into a framed large-scale red wall installation comprised of tightly packed blocks in varying degrees of thickness.  things do not flow so easily here, it seems to say.  instead, it's now choppy waters in a pool. the carpet is also now a square in the middle of the room. blood trapped in a boxing ring.

and that's how the evening's assaults are foreshadowed in this staging of yasmina reza's hilarious play of two couples who meet to resolve a physical altercation between their respective sons: things are going to get bloody. and no one will escape.

(a side observation on the "internationalness" of this production: it's written by a french playwright, translated into english by an english (as in, united kingdom) playwright--with an adjusted version for the usa (versus uk) audience.  the manila production uses the usa version, has a set design reconfigured from an australian production, has filipinos and one singaporean in the cast, has just had its run in manila, and will run in singapore.  but i digress.)

alan (art acuña) and annette (menchu lauchengco-yulo)'s son had hit michael (adrian pang) and veronica (lea salonga)'s son with a stick. the latter couple invites the former couple over to their home.

if you didn't know anything about the rest of the play, the set design and the first few lines about missing teeth and exposed nerves should clue you in nicely. the introductory scoring, an orchestral version of black eyed peas' "i gotta feeling" is also a funny, ironic clue. tonight's gonna be a good night? we'll see.

the set-up of two couples in a living room recalls edward albee's "who's afraid of virginia woolf," though this play is far less daunting and there are no menacing revelations (only a lot of menacing posturing). it also makes one think of oscar wilde's "the importance of being earnest," only in this play, being earnest isn't what's most important. instead, director bobby garcia plays off the text's farcical aspects and highlights the physical comedy bits.  the loudest audience reaction was for stage business involving a body fluid ending up on stage. and its tenuous clean-up.

clipped pace
garcia's guided the actors through a clipped pace as they plow through their lines, punches, and punchlines at around 80 minutes.  the cast are adept in their roles, though it is pang (michael), with his spot-on timing, who milks the funny parts and gets the loudest, longest, and most laughs. (though, a small quibble, the lead-up to a line where he asserts his inner caveman is a bit wanting, leaving the potentially iconic line somewhat of a throw away.)

acuña imbues his role with a slight brooklyn inflection that stays consistent and he maintains alan's aloof disinterest of the evening's proceedings.  lauchengco-yulo looks like she's secretly having the most fun among the four actors, spending much of the time portraying annette in various degrees of physical and mental distress.  salonga's straightforward attack on her role anchors the room together since, as veronica, she is the evening's primary antagonist-who-just-won't-quit.

it's so easy to hate the four characters. so easy to agree and disagree with them all. and so easy laugh at them all. but then, isn't that always the case when one watches a comedy of manners? we laugh because what we see on stage is true, we laugh because the ones we see onstage are us.

the way we are
it is because of this relatability to the characters--while it would be easy to describe the characteristics that define them (alan is a snarky, brutish lawyer. veronica is an arrogant, self-righteous writer. michael is a passive-aggressive business owner and macho man-wannabe. annette is, well, she's drunk.)--that we are led to think about how much of the way we describe these characters, and who we side with during the play, is ultimately a reflection (and admission?) of the way we see things, the way we think, the way we are.

because in this play, as the characters espouse, expound and then skewer their opinions of each other, themselves, and the world, we're not sure who to like or hate anymore towards the end.  is the laywer really snarky? or he's just telling it like it is? is the writer really self-righteous? or is she really right? (you realize midway that the evening, really, is a conversation between these two and the other two are just kind of comic relief.)

reza lets her characters touch on notions of (springing from the dialogue about teeth) veneers and exposed nerves. the roles we are expected to play out in public versus what we really think and feel, the way we see things and the way other people see us, and how big (like that wall installation) these roles can become if we let them.

in this living room, we bear witness to reza's contemplations and iterations on class versus classy, of stereotypes and archetypes and the immovable truths beneath them, of gender roles, of marital roles, of parenting roles, of nice guys/gals and assholes.  reza's lines and ideas, from desserts to lethal medications, from fights in a playground close by to genocide in a land far away, at turns, magnify the inconsequential and trivialize the important, and questions everything in between.

in these arguments reza has constructed, she builds momentum and suspense, and then constantly interrupts the proceedings in order to set up another round. the elliptical looping allows us to see more onstage comedy, and it's also purposefully telling us, oh so slyly, that this is the kind of circular, unending ridiculousness we seem to be trapped in, by choice or circumstance, in our lives. ("and we'll do it all again," sings the black eyed peas.)

the evening goes on and we laugh at the shenanigans on stage. then reza drops the bomb with a poignant scene that makes the characters (and, okay, maybe us, the audience, too) realize that, when the god of carnage pays us a visit, no matter what it is you're fighting about and how you're going on about it, the worth of the fight notwithstanding, sometimes you need remember why you're fighting and/or who you're fighting for in the first place.  and before the scene crosses the line into melodrama, reza knocks it out it with a final punchline. and it sure packs a funny and ironic wallop.

atlatnis productions and singapore repertory theatre's "god of carnage" runs in singapore nov. 6-18, 2012 at dbs arts centre, 20 merbau road, singapore. tickets available at

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