The word “carnage” is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as the “Great and usually bloody slaughter or injury (as in battle).” Parisian playwright Yasmina Reza’s 2006 play, to be performed this Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm in the Kenyon Club Room, may not be a literal bloodbath as this definition suggests, but it does depict the slaughter and injury of the social norms American society grows to adopt.
“God of Carnage,” directed by Katie Shirilla ’13 and produced by Philalatheis, takes place in an unassuming Brooklyn apartment. In it, two middle-aged couples have convened to discuss the fact that one of the couple’s sons has hit and injured the other couple’s son, causing him to require medical attention. This bloodshed is as physically violent as the play gets; however, it is merely the catalyst for the carnage yet to come.
What begins as a civil and practical discussion of what action ought to be taken quickly devolves into an immature, brutal and depraved argument in which these successful adults abandon the social rules that force them to behave properly.
The play, originally written in French and set in Paris, has received wide acclaim in its short history. In 2008, after having been translated into English and moved to the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End, “God of Carnage” won the Olivier Award for Best New Play of the Year. When it relocated to America, it garnered a league of Tony nominations and was the third longest running play of the 2000s. The play was adapted for the screen in 2011 by Roman Polanski, under whom the title changed to Carnage.
These reasons, however, were not why Shirilla chose to direct it. After directing a successful directing workshop during the fall of 2012, she felt encouraged to search for a full-length play to take on. Shirillareceived the title of Reza’s play as a suggestion from a friend, and read “God of Carnage” and found herself fascinated by the exploration of social rules, how adults fill expectations of behavior, and what is revealed when these expectations are forgotten.
“It’s breaking down the perceived notions of behavior. The veneer has been breaking since we were in high school but before that adults were perfect. When we get to college, we realize that adults cause a lot of the problems in the world. It’s playing the image of adults as perfectly behaved and civilized and turning it to pieces,” she explained.
Despite not being able to promote the show as openly as they would because of copy-right obstacles, Shirilla and the cast are very excited for the production and are eager to talk about it in any way they can.
And though serious themes are explored in the play, it is undoubtedly a comedy. For Iris Kohler ’13, who acts in the show, the comedic elements define the show more than its serious ones. “We get to see [the characters] at their most vulnerable. But, one of my favorite things about this play is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Actually, it’s hilarious. The characters are so over the top in their behavior and beliefs. So it’s not vulnerability in the dramatic sense, it’s much more basic and childish than that. We just get to play,” she said.
In describing her character, who is in the middle of writing a book on Darfur when the play takes place, Kohler emphasizes the exposed hypocrisy and contradictions in one’s character. “She says she does what she can to save the world but it’s all in service of her own ego and martyred soul. She doesn’t actually know what it means to be a good person. Eventually, that’s where her crazy emerges,” she explained.
In essence, this character presents an altruistic façade behind which she can hide her true selfishness. The emergence of her true self underscores the “carnage” that takes place in the play: the slaughter of social conventions that reveals the true nature of the characters.
For Shirilla, the humor was evident from the very first rehearsal. “We read the script and laughed our way through it,” she said. This laughter has continued throughout the rehearsal process.
Both Shirilla and the cast found that the humor made the rehearsal process more enjoyable, if a bit unfocused. “It sometimes has been a challenge to get us, the cast, to focus because we mess around and giggle so much,” Kohler said.
Shirilla’s directorial style emphasizes collaboration. Rather than dictate her own thoughts for the play and force the actors to strictly abide by her ideas, Shirilla has empowered the cast to share and infuse their own feelings into their characters.
This collaboration allowed them to deepen their connection to the play and make stronger acting choices. “We have had such great chemistry from the start, allowing us to experiment with big risks and ridiculous actions, all while maintaining the world of the play,” actor Daniel Polonsky ’15 explained.
“God of Carnage” presents important themes for the Vassar student to explore. As we venture into adulthood, we increasingly adopt social rules that influence our behavior around others.
This production forces us to reflect on whether our social selves are adequate reflections of our true inner selves, all while laughing the whole way through. Polonsky explained, “This play is a fun romp that is enjoyable to watch unravel, but also puts on display the theater we create when we try to maintain face in front of strangers.”