I lived in Alaska, and everyone there knows you don’t get between a mother moose and her baby.
As humans, we tend to think kindly of maternal fierceness, whether of the four-legged or two-legged variety. There’s something inherently touching about the instinctual urge to defend one’s offspring. We understand — and celebrate — it. We might not want to be at the receiving end of a 2,000 pound behemoth shaking her antlers at us, but even as we’re running away, a part of us is likely thinking, “Good for her.”
The biggest appeal of Yasmina Reza’s clever and subversive “God of Carnage,” which receives an accomplished new production by StageWorks Fresno, is how the playwright lulls the audience into thinking it’s simply in for an entertaining protective-parents-duke-it-out scenario.
In this modern version of a drawing room comedy, we’re introduced to two sets of parents who gather to deal with the aftermath of a dispute between their two sons. One 11-year-old hit another with a stick on a local playground, taking out a couple of teeth in the process. The two couples get together at the home of the tooth-deprived boy because it’s the “civilized” thing to do.
But it’s clear from the awkward opening moments of the play as the two couples chat — minutes filled with forced courtesy larded with distant disdain — that things aren’t going to turn out well. “How many parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves?” asks Annette (the wonderful Shannon Eizenga), mother of the offender, telegraphing the mayhem to come.
Her husband, Alan (Terry Lewis), a high-powered attorney, doesn’t really want to be there. On the other hand, the victim’s mother, Veronica (Shannah Estep), working on a book about the crisis Darfur, sees the incident as a way to practice what she preaches in terms of justice for all. Her husband, Michael (Chris Carsten), a hard-working wholesaler agrees. (Or does he?)
It’s easy to make “God of Carnage,” which unfolds in real time, just about overprotective and overinvolved parents. Indeed, there is much to muse upon in terms of the dangers of fussy, upscale parents getting too involved in their children’s lives. But playwright Reza isn’t content to make a realistic assessment of modern-day parenting. She cunningly leads her four characters — who are not as united as their couplings might suggest — down a path of, well, carnage. The fascinating thing to me is how smoothly and effortlessly we glide past a point of no return — when we make that transition from “civilized” to “uncivilized.” (Let’s just say alcohol has a lubricating effect.)
From there, it’s almost as if the characters are caught up in a sort of Sartre existential limbo, “No Exit”-style, unable to escape from this living room, as alliances shift and revelations abound. Conflict is in our DNA, it seems, and the only question is how long it takes for the barriers we erect to keep it subdued to begin to crumble.
Director Joel Abels so astutely cast this show that it makes his direction seem effortless. At various times, each character gets a chance to appear reasonable — and also to huff, whine and behave very badly. Lewis, as the fussy and snarky attorney constantly answering his cell phone, has some choice moments. Carsten offers a gem of a performance as the eminently reasonable father who early on betrays another side of his personality with the revelation of his views on hamsters.
It’s most fun, however, to watch the women — society’s “peacemakers” — slowly shift from diplomacy to urban warfare. Estep’s transition from do-gooder to ferocious partisan is hilarious.
And Eizenga, a Canadian transplant to Fresno’s theater scene, makes an auspicious local debut. I’ve seen a lot of “drunk” scenes in my time, and hers ranks among the best. Watching her imbibe is almost like one observing of those nasty barium X-rays that lets doctors see liquid as it travels through the body. It’as if we can see the alcohol spread warmly through her system, unleashing her inhibitions, relaxing her tightly held upscale exterior and succumbing to darker urges within.
The Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium offers a nice, intimate space for the show, though I wish the venue had more nuanced lighting options.
My only disappointment with the show — and it’s tiny — is that a key visual element involving, um, a certainly bodily fluid was – how shall I put this? — not as profuse as I was expecting. (I don’t want to give too much away.) Was it just opening night, or can this weekend’s audiences expect more?
There is no skimping on the acting and directing talent on display, however in “God of Carnage.” It’s a riveting evening of theater. And it’s a short run, with only four performances remaining. You should fight to get there.