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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 24, 2014

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Jason Will, Libby Amato and Anna Figlesthaler star in "God of Carnage," the first production from the new Umbrella Group.
Jason Will, Libby Amato and Anna Figlesthaler star in "God of Carnage," the first production from the new Umbrella Group. (Photo: Maria Petrella)

"God of Carnage" is an impressive debut for Umbrella Group

There is something about watching people just like us begin to unravel and shrink into desperation and desolation that demands our attention.

Whether it’s watching Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in "Kramer vs Kramer," Michael Douglas in "Falling Down" or even "King Lear" where the man descends into an unrivaled madness.

That’s the attraction of "God of Carnage," the Yasmina Reza play serving as the first production of the new Umbrella Group. It opened Thursday night at In Tandem Theatre's 10th Street space and looked like anything but a brand new ensemble of actors.

Under the direction of veteran Bo Johnson, the cast of Libby Amato, Jason Will, Anna Figlesthaler and Matt Wickey melt down before our very eyes, each of them both sympathetic and horrid at the same time.

The married couple Amato and Will have gone to the home of Figlesthaler and Wickey to discuss the playground attack by their son on the son of Figlesthaler and Wickey that resulted in a bruised lip and two lost teeth.

The meeting begins like four civil people have a bit of a discussion. But it doesn’t take long for the first battle lines to be drawn. The first battle is sparked by parental protection, with each couple trying their best to keep their children from being dragged through the mud of accusation, although Will manages to call his son a "savage" between taking cell phone calls to handle a crisis at work.

As the discussion grows in intensity, Amato asks, "How many parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves." The answer in this play is every single one of them.

From the prim and proper opening moments to the increasingly savage meltdown, alliances shift and swing until everybody gets a chance to be angry and frustrated with everyone else in the play.

Part of this is very funny as each character is moved to ever more extreme behavior and language. But underneath the humor is the "God, I hope this never happens to me" river running through your blood.

These characters are finely drawn in the play, and these actors are well up to the task of finding every single angle of their lives.

Amato – stuck in a marriage to a fast track, big time lawyer – is resentful of both the attacks on her son and the seeming indifference of her husband. She melts into an rum infused puddle, throwing up onstage (with a wonderful special effect) and finding cause to spread her marital disgust over everyone else. A veteran of Milwaukee stages, Amato has a warm ability to be vulnerable, vicious and funny at the same time. Her attack on Wickey as a "murderer" for putting the family hamster on the street is priceless.

Figlesthaler is the one who travels the furthest of the four. She starts out as the artist of the group, reasoned and rational and hoping to find common ground. She ends up physically attacking her husband and sitting with Amato on a couch, joined both physically and in cause. Figlesthaler marvelously captures the passions and ultimate exasperations of Veronica.

Wickey is the everyman in the play, a normal job, a normal guy, trying to get by and both in awe and protective of his wife. He holds his temper longest but when he finally explodes it is frightening to behold. "Children," he shrieks, "consume our lives and then destroy them." It’s funny, but at the same time you wonder to yourself, "How could he say that?"

Will is the lawyer, wedded to his cellphone and handling the current business crisis. Each time the phone rings, he clutches it as if it’s his lifeline, and Amato grows ever increasingly bitter about how he loves the phone more than her.

Will also tries to show that what’s going on here is nothing compared to his important life. And he uses humor to get his point across. When Figlesthaler begins to cry, he steps in front of her, "When a woman cries, a man is immediately moved to the worst excesses."

Will is a very entertaining actor, with the kind of good guy face and manner that would make you love him if he wasn’t such a rat. I would love to see Will in "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Johnson is a terrific actor, and he brings an actor's sensibility to his directorial tasks. He gives these people space to be funny, to be sad and to be miserable. His wisdom will help this company flourish.

This production and this company was born out of a desire on the part of the four actors to stage "God of Carnage," and their performance is an exciting one. I truly believe you can never have enough theater, and the Umbrella Group will be a great addition.

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