In French playwright Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” precision of language is everything. Subtle implications in word choice and tone create escalating tensions in the acclaimed 2008 comedy about a conversation between two privileged couples that collapses into vehement disputes. Vermilion Theater accentuates this complexity through its bilingual Mandarin and English-language production running Dec. 1-3 at the Plaza Theatre at Boston Center for the Arts.
“It’s going to be more authentic and more humorous to the Mandarin-speaking community, and I think it will be a really interesting new version of this play,” director Yuning Su said.
The play is set in the living room of Michael and Veronica, who have invited Annette and Alan to discuss a fight between their children. The latter parents’ son hit the other with a stick, causing dental injuries. The pairs consider potential resolutions, but their refined, bourgeois behavior gives way to volleyed insults, clashing worldviews, and messy confrontations both between the couples and within individual marriages.
“We all try to be polite or civilized individuals when we are living in our society, but sometimes, you might lose control,” Su said.
“God of Carnage” was written in French, but the English translation for American audiences plants the characters in ritzy Brooklyn. Here, the characters are Chinese Americans in Boston, and the specificity of the language is important to conveying cultural context. Su, who translated this bilingual version, explained that like many Chinese Americans, the characters speak to one another in Mandarin but also speak English in their day-to-day interactions outside of the Chinese community.
This is reflected particularly in the character Alan, a lawyer representing a dubious pharmaceutical company, who constantly takes work calls that interrupt the conversational flow. He speaks English during the calls, and the disruptive interludes are further alienating because of the abrupt switch between languages.
Subtitle projections will provide English translations of Mandarin dialogue and vice versa. Vermilion Theater, which originated at Yale University in 2021 before breaking off as a Boston-based theater company (the student group still exists, separately, at Yale), produces Mandarin-language plays and plays translated into Mandarin and presents those works in bilingual formats. One of its goals is to share Chinese culture and stories with diverse audiences.
“I always find myself, being in a different country, there’s kind of some responsibility for me to show others my world,” Su, who is from China and attended graduate school at Emerson College, said.
The company also strives to engage Chinese audiences with material that reflects their communities.
“We [have] had a lot of audience members coming to us and saying that they are really grateful to see high-quality Mandarin performances in the states,” Kaye Huiyuan Hu, who plays Annette and is also Vermilion’s general manager and public relations director, said. “A lot of people [have come] to us saying that it really gives them this sense of belonging.”
Chinese audience members may catch another linguistically specific element in the dialogue. Two of the characters speak in dialects that add subtextual characterization, according to Fei Peng, who plays Michael.
Michael periodically gets calls from his mother, and in these brief snippets, Peng speaks in the dialect of his hometown city Nanjing. He said that Chinese audiences will likely be able to recognize that he’s talking in a dialect, even if they can’t identify its regional origin.
“It’s going to be funny. It’s like how people react to if you see somebody in Boston and [wearing] a suit and tie, but then suddenly, they answer their phone in like Southern accent,” Peng said.
Peng’s lines in dialect convey how even adults can revert to their childhood selves when talking to their mothers, he said. It aligns with the play’s overarching patterns of the characters shedding their cultivated appearances.
Annette speaks a line of Shanghainese that Peng thinks similarly reveals the character’s background and disposition because of the associations Chinese audience members have about the dialect.
Another crucial part of the dialogue is the humor, which Su put a lot of effort into when translating the text. Jokes don’t transfer easily, word-for-word, between languages.
“It’s not only that word or that sentence selection, but also you have to look back and look forward in the whole story to see if there’s any connection with the humor,” Su said.
Jin Chen, the actor playing Veronica, said there’s “some additional jokes on top of the original” that are tailored for Chinese audiences.
All these culturally specific components work to provide solid context for the narrative, but Su said the most important aspect is the questions raised about people and relationships.
Su acted in a production of “God of Carnage” years ago and was struck by how the story was contained in a single setting but carried “huge power.” He said the play is about interpersonal conflicts “that can happen to any one of us, not only in France, maybe in America, also in China.”
Hu attributes the intensity of the arguments to the characters’ deep flaws and “raw emotions,” which lead to the “dark side of human nature being exposed.” She said that there are themes of traditional gender dynamics and internalized sexism.
“I just hope that this play can leave the audience thinking about…how violence and harm can be conducted in intimate relationships,” Hu said.
Su also thinks that the play reflects socially relevant topics. He said the characters’ arguments invoke larger issues.
“It’s not only about a family issue, it’s about the whole society, it’s about the whole world,” Su said.
GOD OF CARNAGE
Presented by Vermilion Theater. At Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Dec 1-3. Tickets are $25. bostontheatrescene.com/shows-and-events/god-of-carnage/
Abigail Lee can be reached at email@example.com.