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Covina

CARNAGE: A COMEDY ~ The Actor’s Gang ~ Culver City

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Carnage: A Comedy ~ Ivy Substation ~ 9070 Venice Blvd. Culver City, CA 90232 Thursdays-Sundays until March 8th

"Carnage may be more relevant today than it was when we first did it 20 years ago. The emergence of radical right wing theology as a legitimate political force has made this a much more dangerous time than the late 80s. Recent revelations about Blackwater, a private militia owned by fundamentalist Erik Prince and funded by tax-payer dollars, was a fear we gave life to in the play-but it wasn't a reality yet. As far as demagogues go, there are still just as many hucksters and zealots plying their wares from the Potomac to the Rio Grande." ~ Tim Robbins

"Dooooooooooooooomed! Dooooooomed!" Standing over the fourth row of the house at the Ivy Substation in Culver City, a Southern Pentecostal televangelist named Cotton Slocum crooks his aged finger at audience members to denounce that they are sinners who will not be spared come judgment day. A grotesque creature torn from a Gerald Scarfe sketch, he is part monster grandfather, part Billy Graham snake oil salesman, with a heaping spoonful of Elvis thrown in to his mix from his voice and swagger to the gawdy belt he wears, crouching and striking fierce poses. Dark circles under his eyes betray the shadow of this supposed man of God, who soon snaps out of fire and brimstone mode while showing a young acolyte Tack (Justin Zsebe) the steps to seducing crowds through spirituality, teaching preaching as an exact science, down to the number of steps to take and the rise and fall of the voice. Do it like this, he says "...and they're your's."

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His fierce apocalyptic fire turns quickly to the shifting sand of manipulation. What about the end of days, his young pupil asks..."We got time...the end is not coming," says Slocum with a sly smile, "that's preaching son, and that's what sells...this is a big time operation."

So begins the re-birth of Carnage: A Comedy, written 20 years ago by the West Covina-born actor and director Tim Robbins and writer/producer/director Adam Simon. We knew Mr. Robbins was funny from repeated viewings of Bull Durham, Bob Roberts, and Anchorman, but Carnage comes so jam-packed with well-executed character-driven madness and rib-splitting lines that the perpetual laughs from the audience almost get distracting at times. Robbins and Simon apparently also have a gift for prophecy, as their tale of religious shysters, mercenaries, and holy war is certainly more apt today, the main reason the play has come back to the stage. The original version was performed in various world theaters in 1987, and the cast included J.B. and K.G. of Tenacious D (a band so hard-to-the-core that Satan drove Himself back to Hell to avoid being out-rocked).

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Carnage's heart and gristle is the phenomenal VJ Foster, who gives Cotton every last drop of his actor's soul. Turning from a well-calculated Walt Disney of Christianity (his massive church is also an amusement park), who has the country wrapped around his finger, to a descent into Lear-like madness, Foster embodies his role completely and explosively--spitting, snarling, and cursing the firmament, you could swear you were watching a real mental breakdown, humor and horror included. His awesome performance never flags, but only gets more intense, more insane, and still more fun. The performance is as satirically comic as Reverend Billy and as troubling as the late great Brother Theodore meeting at a crossroads and merging as one.

Circling around Cotton's money-machine Church are his devoted followers, his family (complete with a bleached blond Tammy Faye-type wife, Tipper, played by Donna Jo Thorndale), and employees. When the organization's money manager lists the various lawsuits and fuck-ups plaguing their congregation, Cotton seeks out his next cash raising effort in the form of a walk on historic Indian Falls.

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Meanwhile, a mad movement piece of mercenaries drills with paint ball guns in the remote countryside. Their icy leader Bob (Cameron Dye) gives the boot to intense Ralph (Chris Schultz), whose wife Dot (Stephanie Carrie) is a devoted fan of Cotton's, a true believer, and possibly the most likable character in the show. Ralph's religious beliefs are not nearly as strong as his sweet wife's, rather he seems obsessed with two of our great national past times, booze and war, dreaming of going overseas to search "for sandies." His rejection from the elite soldier-for-hire force finds him drinking more, sinking deeper, and in an effort to save his marriage, hitting the road with his wife towards Indian Falls. This mismatched couple is portrayed with energy and accuracy by the two terrific actors Schultz and Carrie, Ralph personifying an angry white conservative male, and Dot a ray of rural, pre-packaged domestic sunshine.

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What follows is a truly mad-capped race through the intentions and behavior of extreme Christians tied up with a privileged patriotism that must be expressed through violence. Cotton undergoes a bomb attack (complete with a little Slocum doll on a pulley flying over the audience's heads) severe enough to make him think he's awoken post-rapture and been "left behind" to God's tests, like Job or Abraham. Wandering the desert lost, he questions God's plans for him, even angrily demanding God take him up to Heaven, while quickly losing his grasp on reality or himself.

As Slocum descends, a more menacing religious power rises in his place. Soldiers of God are forming, ready for a Christian Holy War lead by the leader of the Mercenaries. Both he and Slocum have used religion to satiate their thirst for power, and both feel God's light shines brightest on their people, their beliefs, their country. Robbins and Simon predicted the rise of a Christian Fundamentalist army about 10 years before the rise of conservative Christian moneybags Erik Prince and his company Blackwater, the tax-payer financed private military who have made almost a billion dollars (tax-payer funded) since the "War on Terror" began, mostly through non-bid contracts given by other conservative Christian powers.

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Carnage is not necessarily the most linear story, so much as a visual feast of recognizable characters forming our country's scariest menagerie. Like a Lynchian road trip through the cornfields, we are introduced to such characters as Foo-Foo the Bunny, Clare the Motorcycle Slut (Laurent Oppelt), subterranean paranoids, and a cheery family of bleeding, dismembered car crash victims that recalls Wild at Heart's creepiest scene (Steven M. Porter hilariously plays the unforgettable head of the ailing clan) . They are the kind of frighteningly sweet white folks who have never ventured past the country line, but accept without question that God is on "our side," is our privilege, and that other cultures need to change to see that. We do not see the results of this right-wing Christian Army come to pass, for that we need only study the history of military dictatorships and private militias in Argentina, Myanmar, Colombia, Uganda, Panama, Brazil, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and countless other countries who have allowed strong men to instill their beliefs and military might on their own people.

North American heritage music plays a part in the show as well, particularly cool was a bittersweet ballad played by a solemn, soulful Rockabilly cat (the versatile Cameron Dye again).

In the end, we are given very few glimpses of religion as a window to love or understanding, but as mere conduits to our good old standbys, cash or combat. The ride is hilarious, poignant, and scary. The Actor's Gang consists of some very dynamic comedic actors who turn a nearly bare stage into an entire microcosmic ssssivilization.

Kudos to director Beth F. Miles, Adam Simon, Tim Robbins, the Actor's Gang's terrific performers, and specifically to V.J. Foster. If you enjoy great character acting, you have until March 8 to experience this powerhouse of a performer and this wonderful, prophetic and certainly timely production.

Carnage: a Comedy, runs through March 8th, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8PM and Sundays at 3PM. Thursdays are pay-what-you-can, so lack of funds are no excuse. Otherwise, tickets cost $25 and $20 for students/seniors. Feb 22nd will see a performance for the hearing impaired.

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