Sometimes our best intentions don’t always make for the best results. Ottawa’s most recent production of God of Carnage, presented by Sock ‘n Buskin, has a good heart behind it, but suffers from issues that mainly stem from it being a rather unusual choice to produce given that its content suggests little relevance to a student theatre company. Unfortunately, in what could perhaps be attributed to a desire to stay true to the playwright, the uneven blending of naturalist and realist staging confuses the overall tone of the production.
Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (Le Dieu du Carnage in the original French) is a one-act black comedy that sees two sets of parents attempting a civilized interaction following an altercation between their respective 11-year old sons, in which one was left with two broken teeth and a swollen lip. In the living room of Michael and Veronica Novak, whose son was the ‘victim’ of the fight, the attempted reconciliation with Alan and Annette Raleigh eventually devolves to the point where all four ‘rational’ adults behave like selfish, emotionally-motivated children, demonstrating themselves to be no better than the never-seen sons. Much of the conflict between the two couples escalates from the apparent disparity in their respective socio-political views: the Novaks (especially Veronica) seem to lean to the left side of the political spectrum, while the Raleighs appear firmly conservative. Despite the ‘black comedy’ label this play borrows heavily from the ‘comedy of manners’ genre (think Importance of Being Earnest) at least at its outset, if only to compare the way the characters disguise and then eventually bare their contempt for each other. It has proven an international success, with the English translation by Christopher Hampton receiving acclaimed productions in London and New York, winning the Tony Award for Best Play in 2009. At least two productions in Ottawa have already occurred: Third Wall’s production at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in 2013, as well as an Ottawa Little Theatre production last year.
The script is smart, savagely funny, and popular for both critics and audiences, so on that level the programming choice seems like a great fit for a student company like Sock ‘n Buskin, especially with the small cast size (two men, two women) and the freedom to design a set that doesn’t have to move. Beyond these aspects, however, there’s little in the play itself that speaks to students or student-related issues. A play with middle-aged characters discussing (at least superficially) a rather suburban problem is not an intuitive choice for a student company. To see these characters being played by students in their early 20s might lend a satirical aspect, but since the social satire is built into the script such a casting angle would be unnecessary at best. The other main issue with the choice to produce this play – that of the subtlety on the part of the actors that this script demands, at least towards the beginning – is more specific to the production itself and the confusing clash of realism and naturalism within it.
Rather than the large Kailash Mital Theatre in which Sock ‘n Buskin shows usually take place, God of Carnage is staged in the Carleton University Art Gallery, in an intimate setting that places the front row mere feet away from the coffee table in the Novaks’ living room. This staging suggests a naturalistic tone – naturalism being a hyper-realistic form of theatre in which the audience is completely ignored by the production. There is no ‘fourth wall’ per se, the dialogue and its delivery is pared-down and as close to natural speech patterns as possible. Naturalistic theatre tends to do better in small spaces like the Carleton Art Gallery, since the physical proximity helps to make up for the lack of theatricality that would otherwise draw the spectator’s attention. The staging that director Casey Beynon has created, however, borrows much more from realistic theatre, which like naturalism attempts to convincingly imitate reality but implicitly acknowledges its audience. Realistic theatre sees living rooms set up in the shape of a baseball diamond rather than the rectangular set-up one would typically find in real life, since the baseball diamond set-up allows for more of the audience to see more of the set. Important moments (or especially entertaining ones) tend to happen closer to the front of the stage, again with the goal of maximum audience impact.
In God of Carnage, the size of the set suggests naturalism since the physical closeness of the audience magnifies the impact of the actors’ actions, yet the configuration of set elements like furniture and flats suggests realism. Reza’s script bluntly states “No realism” under the character list, yet the staging constantly brings major moments to the front of the stage for seemingly no reason other than perhaps maximizing the impact on the audience, but since the audience is already so close to the action it’s redundant, and at times dangerous. These major moments tend to be the points in the story where the verbal tension crosses over into the physical, beginning with Annette’s vomiting all over the coffee table and Veronica’s art books to Veronica angrily wrestling a decanter of rum (who keeps rum in a decanter?) away from Michael. The vomiting scene is harmless save for audience members with a heightened gag reflex, but the wrestling is far more of an issue.
When the actor holding a large, pointy glass decanter is standing only two or three feet away from the front row, to have another actor sneak up on him from behind and jump on him immediately puts the adjacent audience members in a position of compromised safety, especially with student actors whose physical grounding is still in development. Danger aside, there’s no reason for these moments to all happen right at the edge of the playing area, and the lack of spatial variety where these moments are concerned becomes monotonous, ironically invalidating the implicit goal of increased audience impact.
That’s not to say there’s nothing enjoyable here. The student actors, while obviously younger than the characters they play, sometimes tap into the heart of the character. Matthew Venner’s haughty honesty as Alan, combined with his annoyed facial expressions during his frequent cell phone conversations with his assistant, make his performance a joy to watch; Lindsay Tannahill nails Veronica’s naïve pretentiousness. Annette’s vomiting is beautifully pulled off, and though the amount is perhaps excessive it does work well with the realist tone of the moment as it is staged. Translator Hampton’s decision to replace the references to Parisian locations in the original French to New York equivalents in the English translation is echoed here by replacing those references with Ottawa ones, which lends a nice universality to the script.
Sock ‘n Buskin’s God of Carnage has its issues, but at its heart it is still the savagely funny script that continues to win over audiences. You might want to avoid the front row though.
God of Carnage
Presented by Sock ‘n Buskin
Written by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
At the Carleton University Art Gallery (St. Patrick’s Building, Carleton University Campus)
January 26-29, 7pm, with a matinee performance January 28 at 2pm
Directed by Casey Beynon
Stage Management by Tamara Laplante
Set and Effects by Christian Giansante
Starring, in alphabetical order: Kosta Diochnos, Megan Harvey, Lindsay Tannahill, Matthew Venner