Thursday, March 17, 2011

Comedy and Carnage

By Liz Dengel, Literary Intern

God of Carnage struck me very differently onstage than it did on paper. When I first read the play, alone at my desk one winter evening, I wasn’t laughing. Instead, I was more than a little disturbed by the characters’ deep unhappiness, their vicious behavior and their ruthless philosophy. But at Monday’s opening night performance, my date and I laughed heartily—along with the rest of the audience. All that pain, anxiety and rage somehow fuels an uproarious evening at Goodman Theatre.

I’ve read that playwright Yasmina Reza has mixed feelings about the laughter that her plays elicit from English-speaking audiences. She told an interviewer from the Guardian, “The way people laugh changes the way you see a play. A very profound play may seem very light. My plays have always been described as comedy but I think they're tragedy. They are funny tragedy, but they are tragedy. Maybe it's a new genre."

When it comes to assigning God of Carnage a genre, the Chicago reviews don’t present a consensus either. The labels they assign run the gamut from “as commercial a comedy as you can imagine” to a “little drama” to a “comedy of ill manners.” One reviewer noted, “Rick Snyder’s crisp direction keeps the audience from wondering what’s so funny about such profound sadness until long after the curtain falls.”

How do we respond to work that doesn’t adhere to a familiar category? And why is this painful text such a comic success?

1 comment:

  1. Bad people doing bad things, but in a very witty way, was how I described the characters in Aldous Huxley's novel, Point Counter Point in my review in October, 2008. The same description applies to the four characters in Yasmina Reza's play, God of Carnage, that is currently playing at the Goodman Theatre in downtown Chicago. More than one hundred years after Oscar Wilde's brilliantly witty comedy we have award-winning (Tony, Olivier, Moliere) comedy with wit, but without the soul. Not since attending Moliere who gave us The Misanthrope have I seen such misanthropic characters on stage. While I was yearning for some wisdom to show itself to reward the pain being endured on the stage there was little on the stage that approached anything other than sheer Bacchanalian chaos. However, Euripides this is not.

    The evening was made bearable by beautiful acting from the ensemble, great direction by Rick Snyder, an efficient set, and a well-constructed play. The skill with which the ensemble slowly raised their passions and the ensuing chaos I would compare to the gradual and inexorable increase in sound of a Rossini crescendo. That the playwright succeeded in her presentation of comedy with wit and thought is a tribute to Reza, but this is a world that I would want to stay away from. The only thing more violent than the passions on stage last night were the missiles reigning down on an insane North African dictator thousands of miles away. The verbal missiles and bombs on stage made for comedy, but it was a comedy that elicited laughter that left a bad taste in my mouth.