The gloves come off at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre

LENOX — Yasmina Reza's acidic comedy, "God of Carnage," couldn't have come at a more appropriate time at Shakepeare & Company.

"We chose this play in (a broad) environment in which the gloves have come off; in which people are saying whatever they want. I've always felt programming is a reflection of our environment rather than a reaction to it," Shakespeare & Company artistic director Allyn Burrows said of his decision to produce the play, which, after Thursday and Friday previews, opens Saturday evening at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, where it is scheduled to run weekends through Oct. 8

The setting is the living room of the apartment shared by Veronica (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) and Michael Novak (Jonathan Croy) who are getting ready for a meeting with Alan and Annette Raleigh (Burrows and Kristin Wold) to discuss a playground incident in which Veronica and Michael's 11-year-old son, Henry, has lost two teeth and in all likelihood will need an implant after having been hit with a stick by Alan and Annette's son, Benjamin.

What begins as a civilized conversation between two smart well-educated middle-class couples deteriorates into a situation in which all pretense falls by the wayside and truth becomes as much a casualty as do two front teeth.

In a January 2012 interview, Reza told a writer for The Guardian she was inspired to write the play by an incident described to her by a friend.

"It was suddenly, click! I thought, 'This is an incredible theme,'" Reza told The Guardian.

"God of Carnage" premiered in Zurich in 2006, followed by award-winning runs in London and Reza's native Paris in 2008 and New York in 2009.

In this region, the play has been produced at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany, N.Y., TheaterWorks in Hartford, Conn. and The Theater Barn in New Lebanon, N.Y. It's also been made into a film, "Carnage," by Roman Polanski.

"These wild plays open doors," commented Regge Life, who is directing Shakespeare & Company's production, during a recent pre-rehearsal interview at which he was joined by Burrows and Wold.

While he had never seen a production of "God of Carnage," Life said he has always found the title "exciting and provocative." So, when Burrows called and asked if he'd at least be willing to read the script, Life said yes and then signed on the minute he finished reading.

The title also caught Wold's attention. "Those two words," she said, "'god' and 'carnage.' It's vicious."

"It is fun to play," Burrows said, "because it's so carnivorous."

"What has come up for me," Aspenlieder said in a separate email interview, "is the irony of these two couples seemingly discussing reasonably and rationally an unfortunate altercation between their sons and yet, in a heartbeat, they willingly devolve into irrational and petulant 3-year-olds.

"I think the play questions our own humanity, behavior and responsibility in the world."

"Reza is asking what is it that's going to move humanity to a better place?" Wold said.

For Life, the biggest challenge in directing "God of Carnage" is pacing, in the sense not only of his own process but also in terms of the arc of the play's narrative.

"You can fall into a trap of getting ahead of yourself," he said.

"This afternoon meeting unfolds moment to moment. It could end at any moment but then something else happens and before you know it, you get in so deep you have to play it out to win and that's the carnage."

For all the words that are exchanged during the course of this 90-minute intermissionless piece, "God of Carnage" is driven as much by what isn't said as by what is said. That's particularly true of Wold's Annette.

"There is so much she is not saying. There is a lot she is thinking," Wold said, "but it's not coming out." And when something does come out, it is vomited, literally, over valued coffee table art books.

"That stuff inside you is so personal," Wold said, "and these people are so smart. They are brought to the point of determining whether they are going to be civilized or act on their impulses." Both, as it turns out.

The play, with its examination of parenting, marriage, responsibility, morality, doing the right thing, knowing what the right thing is, will touch nerves

"I think audiences will be divided over this play," Burrows said. "Some people will simply leave at the end, walk away; some, I think, will be bowled over."

Either way, Aspenlieder says, "God of Carnage" should resonate with audiences.

"It raises questions of hypocrisy and ... holds up a mirror to the current political landscape," she said.

"This is a dark comedy ... but it could only be this way to succeed. The humor in this play comes out of the pain, the situation. It's deep, dark, funny and enlightening."

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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