Strong performances ground the chaos in ICCT’s ‘God of Carnage’

Iowa City Community Theatre Presents: God of Carnage

Johnson County Fairgrounds — through Feb. 2

Trent Yoder as Alan, Nicole DeSalle as Annette in ICCT’s ‘God of Carnage.’ — EMcKnight Photography

“I believe in the God of carnage,” Alan Raleigh, played by Trent Yoder, says. The line echoes in the ears of Iowa City theater-goers as they watch seemingly civilized adults resort to childish, brutal hilarity.

The 2006 French play God of Carnage came, translated and then Americanized, to Broadway in 2009, winning a Tony Award for Best Play, among others. Iowa City Community Theatre opened it on Jan. 24 to an amused and unsettled audience. The play takes viewers on a journey that goes from domestic bliss to untethered chaos.

Written by acclaimed French playwright Yasmina Reza, God of Carnage is directed for ICCT by Susan Hamel. The plot begins with two sets of parents, the Novaks and the Raleighs, sitting in an intimately small living room. The meeting is intended as a way of resolving a violent school yard interaction between their children, which left one with broken teeth and a busted lip.

The characters begin with exchanging the normal meaningless small talk as they start to discuss the possible punishments for the attack. But soon small slights lead to full-fledged name calling, coffee cake leads to heavy drinking and the couples’ personalities are on full display.

It was evident that Hamel wanted the focus of the show to be on the characters and their relationships to each other. The scenery was a minimalist style. The design trimmed all excess staging fat, leaving only what was needed. Scenic designer Charissa Hamel and scenic consultant Robert Hamel put on stage only what was mentioned in the play, with no extra window dressing. But what will strike viewers is the massive Jackson Pollock-inspired backdrop.

This only-the-essentials staging allowed viewers to take in the performance of the actors instead of getting distracted by the design.

The Novaks first appear as easy going, conflict-averse, liberal parents. The Raleighs arrive at the Novak home dressed in all the trappings of upper class snobbery. But after the couples slowly start to turn on one another, the audience sees the facades fall.

These actors move from one emotion to the next seamlessly. The play’s conflict builds with each piece of dialogue. Every time someone speaks, it takes these parents deeper into revealing their self-hatred and resentment towards their respective spouses.

Jocky Motyko as Michael, Valerie Bills as Veronica in ICCT’s ‘God of Carnage.’ — EMcKnight Photography

Michael Novak, played by Jocko Motyko, begins the sit down with a quiet, subdued, non-confrontational outlook. His jokes about cake and hardware tools are met with polite fake laughs from the Raleighs. Motyko’s take on the mild-mannered Michael will charm all the audience early on, but he turns on a dime as the play progresses. As the conflict builds, the audience sees him resort to screaming, bullying and throwing around racial slurs.

Annette Raleigh, played by Nicole DeSalle, goes from a charming, high-class wealth manager, to a drunk, puking and insulting everyone with deadly destruction. DeSalle progresses organically as Annette, keeping a great balance of hilarious and appalling actions.

The play’s message seems to be that, even though people can be polite and subdued on the outside, that mask can hide the real face of humanity.

The play is a dark comedy to be sure, but the humor is brilliantly brought to life by the cast. Even the smallest reaction from Valerie Davine’s Veronica Novak causes both a gust of giggles from the audience and a following quickened silence.

However, the darkness is also very present. The play has blunt conversations about many topics, including age, marriage and gender.

Because of the amazing cast and the great script, God of Carnage is a definite must-see for theater lovers and non-theater goers alike. The play will leave viewers with a lot to think and talk about well after the house lights come up. The universal topics God of Carnage deals with make it evergreen; in a climate where people sometimes act one way publicly, yet behave completely opposite in the private, it carries a little bit more meaning in 2020.

ICCT’s God of Carnage runs through Feb. 2. It is the fourth production of the company’s 2019-20 season, with Company going up in March and The Laramie Project scheduled for April.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the scenic designer as Don E. Schneider and Robert Hamel’s role as design consultant. We are grateful to our readers for informing us of this error.

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