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Theater: Carnage, A Comedy

“Doom! Doom! Doom!” With those three words, a reference to the coming Apocalypse, the Reverend Cotton Slocum begins his fervent sermon to the sinners in the audience. So also begins the savagely funny satire, Carnage, A Comedy, authored by Adam Simon and Tim Robbins, artistic director of The Actors’ Gang in Culver City. The play opened a six-week run Saturday.

First performed in 1987, the play is being revived as a carnivalesque examination of the influence of religion in America. “Carnage may be more relevant today than it was when we first did it 20 years ago,” observes Robbins. “The emergence of radical right-wing theology as a legitimate political force has made this a much more dangerous time than the late 80s.”

Directed deftly with a biting tone by Beth F. Milles, the play chronicles the rise and fall of Slocum, a televangelist who leads the Charismatic Optimistic Pentecostals from his compound in God’s Happy Acre in Splendora, Texas, complete with theme park. Facing financial pressures, Slocum decides to embark on a 50-mile pilgrimage to raise $250,000 to keep his fundamentalist empire afloat. “They want to believe,” he tells his mild-mannered assistant Tack. “They pay to believe.”

Among Slocum’s most devoted followers is Dot (portrayed with earnest sincerity by Stephanie Carrie), a housewife who tunes in to televangelist broadcasts to help her deal with an abusive, alcoholic husband whose hobby is paramilitary adventuring. “I’m ready for the Apocalypse,” she enthusiastically declares before dragging her husband Ralph (Chris Schultz) to God’s Acre in search of spiritual rejuvenation. She emerges as the one character in the play whose heart is pure.

Also featured in scattered vignettes in Carnage are a group of survivalists peeking out from a hole in the ground to see if there is still life on Earth after the Apocalypse, a stuffed bunny named Foo Foo who dispenses righteous wisdom, and an upwardly mobile family obsessed with material success even as they lie bleeding from a car crash.

In a performance at once comically charged and intensely poignant, V.J. Foster shows Slocum’s abrupt transformation from charismatic huckster to a lost, distressed soul wandering in the desert. In one of the more bizarre scenes in the play, Slocum’s body blasts out of a cannon, leaving him disheveled and mentally disoriented, wondering why God didn’t lift him up in the Rapture. Trying to hurl his stout body skyward, the preacher bellows to God: “You get me out of this, you old coot. Right now!”

Also standouts in the cast are Donna Jo Thorndale, who plays Tipper, Slocum’s chirpy, sanctimonious spouse, and Laurent Oppelt, as Clare, the paraplegic “motorcycle slut” who lifts herself from a wheelchair as a testimony to her faith.

Although Carnage successfully skewers the hypocrisy of preachers out for profit, it also reveals a darker, disturbing side in its revelation of the machinations of Christian militants. In contrast to the boisterous self-promotion of Cotton Slocum, the play offers Tack as a violently devout Christian who takes over Slocum’s church.

Imbued with Justin Zsebe’s spooky intensity, Tack rallies his congregants, dressed efficiently in crisp white uniforms: “We are foot soldiers in the army of the Lord.” “Take up arms to cleanse this holy land.”

With its provocative juxtaposition of the silly and the sinister, Carnage aptly distinguishes between the misappropriation of religion for financial enrichment and its use to justify violence – the more serious offense. As Robbins remarks, “A con man will steal your wallet, but a zealot will steal your soul.”

Carnage, A Comedy runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through March 8 at The Actors’ Gang, Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Boulevard, Culver City. For information and reservations, call 310.838.4264 or go to theactorsgang.com.

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