A new kid in town: Easthampton Theater Company steps onto city arts scene with first production, ‘God of Carnage’

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 05-05-2023 10:29 AM

Easthampton, measured by a variety of yardsticks, has made considerable strides in the last several years as an artistic town. Public art projects and new galleries. Artist studios in old mill buildings. New music venues such as the Marigold Theater. The creation of a poet laureate position and numerous public events to support poetry.

Now a community theater company can be added to the list.

The Easthampton Theater Company (ETC), formed late last year, is getting ready to stage its debut performance, “God of Carnage,” and they’ll do it May 11-14 at the Blue Room in CitySpace — the first play in what group founder Michael O. Budnick hopes will be a regular series of performances.

“It’s been years since Easthampton had a community theater program,” said Budnick, who’s been involved with other regional organizations, including the Westfield Theatre Group, for the last decade.

“Given how much the arts scene has expanded here in other ways, this just seemed like a good time to add a local theater group to the mix,” he said.

Budnick, who lives in Easthampton and has a background in business and education, wears another theatrical hat of sorts: He’s the president of the regional chapter of the Mad Science franchise, which offers after-school programs and special events to get children interested in science. (His handle on the job is “Professor Micron.”)

“I love theater, and I like having different roles in it,” said Budnick, who is the producing director of “God of Carnage” and also serves a president of ETC’s five-member board of directors.

The 80-seat Blue Room, he observed, is a great “intimate setting” for the play. He and the other members of ETC say they’re also looking forward to seeing renovations completed on the second floor of the city’s Old Town Hall, which CitySpace is turning into a 350-seat performance and community space.

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“That’s going to be a great addition to the city,” said Matt O’Reilly, one of the actors in next weekend’s play. “We’re hoping CitySpace can really be our home.”

Thin veneer of civilization

During a recent group phone call, Budnick, O’Reilly, and two other members of ETC, Thomas Piccin and Manuel Morales, talked about the company and its choice of “God of Carnage” for its first production. About a dozen people are involved, including for set and and lighting design, sound effects, and costume design.

Budnick, for one, said the play seems especially appropriate for this era of polarized politics, class tensions, and other dynamics that seem to have many people on edge.

“Plus it’s very, very funny,” he said.

In “God of Carnage,” published in 2008 by French playwright Yasmina Reza — the original title is “Le Dieu du Carnage” — two married couples meet to discuss an incident in which the 11-year-old son of one couple has injured the son of the other in a playground dispute.

The couple of the boy who has injured the other consists of Alan, a wealthy lawyer, and his wife, Annett. The other couple are Michael, who runs a family business, and his wife, Veronica, a writer.

The meeting, in a tony Brooklyn, New York apartment, begins cordially enough. But the polite facade soon begins breaking down, revealing class tensions, a battle of egos and emotions, and irrational arguments that veer into loaded subjects like sexism and racial prejudice.

“It basically shows how thin the veneer of civilization can be,” said O’Reilly, who plays Michael.

The play, after being translated into English, won awards in both Great Britain and the U.S in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and has since been translated into other languages and produced in several other countries. It was also adapted for the 2011 Roman Polanski film “Carnage.”

“Watching four people basically devolve on stage makes for very good satire,” Piccin said.

As one reviewer of the first British production wrote, “So an apparently superficial domestic comedy unravels as a grim anthropological study of fractured manners, marital rifts and drink-fueled truth-telling … It is also a brilliantly uncomfortable dissection of the way some of us live now, and all your middle-class professional neighbours with problem children — and problems, period — will want to see for themselves.”

Piccin, who plays Alan, says he was drawn to the subject of the play but has steered clear of seeing previous versions of it or the Polanski film, wanting to bring his own take to his character.

“I think there are some universal themes here that cross national borders,” he said, noting that the original setting for the play was Paris.

Morales, the stage manager for ETC’s production, says the set will conjure a “bohemian, upscale” urban apartment. An Easthampton resident who’s been involved in other theater productions in the region, he’s been designing an overall look and setting for “God of Carnage” for since late December.

Room to grow

Meanwhile, Piccin and O’Reilly say they’re both excited about getting involved with ETC. Piccin, who grew up in West Springfield and now lives in South Hadley, previously lived in Baltimore and was active in theater there for years. ETC, he says, has been “really organized, very professional right from the get-go.”

O’Reilly, a Chicopee resident who previously lived in Easthampton, says he’s worked with other area companies such as Westfield Theatre Group and is interested now in being part of the kind of “small, character-driven plays” that ETC is looking to do: “I think we’re off to a great start.”

The group has been rehearsing “God of Carnage” in the parish hall of St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church in Easthampton, just a short walk from CitySpace.

Budnick says the company’s goal is to start with two to three small productions a year and then hopefully ramp up to five shows a year, including some larger productions, with a summer theater workshop series as well. The group hopes to use the larger stage at Old City Hall for bigger shows once renovations to the building are complete.

Another possibility would be staging productions in the auditorium of the old Pepin School, as Easthampton officials are considering a plan for converting Pepin and the city’s two other former elementary schools for new uses, including housing and community space.

“We’d love to get our foot in the door [at Pepin],” Budnick said.

The long-range goal, he added, is to make ETC both a home for community theater and professional actors, a hybrid model that could offer appropriate pay for professionals but still provide plenty of opportunities for community involvement.

“There are a lot of possibilities,” Budnick said, “and we’re excited about them.”

“God of Carnage” takes place at the Blue Room in CitySpace May 11-13 at 7:30 p.m. and at 2 p.m. on May 14. Tickets range from $15 to $18 and are available at easthamptontheater.com and at the door.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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