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The Heart of the Matter:

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God of Carnage
Red Barn Studio and Theatre
4/28-5/29, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.;
Saturday matinees, 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15-$27 •

Rachel Lewis Hilburn, Mike O’Neil, John Stafford and Michelle Gagliano take the Red Barn stage in ‘God of Carnage.’ Photo by Kelly Starbuck.

There are faces in society and there are faces behind closed doors. Which we see depends on the certitude built between two people. That’s the tenet behind Steve Bakunas’ directing style and behind Red Barn’s latest play, Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” opening this week.

“I have to build trust with my actors,” Bakunas, a 20-year seasoned thespian, says. Though he studied directing at a conservatory, it’s his experience on stage that helps him recognize each actor’s journey and how they tap into the honesty of their characters. He wants everyone he works with to realize that, as their director, he has their best interests at heart.

“I’m an actor first,” Bakunas exclaims, “so I know there is a certain vocabulary and a way to understand and get [actors] to trust you. . . . They may be able to explain a character, but sometimes they don’t always know how they come off.”

These underlying themes parallel the issues running rampant in Reza’s play. Who we are, how we’re beholden and what we believe often times in life gets challenged under tumultuous circumstances. It begs many questions: What face do we wear to the world and to the people closest to us? Who exactly gets to see us stripped and raw? And how many sheaths are there to reach our true selves?

“As human beings, we know how to perceive others,” Bakunas notes. “We can tell when someone’s bullshitting us and when they’re putting on an act. I am trying to get the actors to tap into how they would really portray themselves in every scenario. I want them to treat everything as if it were happening to them—the script calls for the real action.”

“God of Carnage” follows two married couples through the turmoil and aid of their children’s playground fight. When they sit down to discuss the situation, behaviors and principles get revealed, in essence showcasing a different face of each character. “Digs start happening and what’s underneath comes to light,” Bakunas says. “Alcohol gets introduced, and walls start coming down.”

With four of Wilmington’s most talented actors—Rachel Lewis Hilburn, Michelle Gagliano, Mike O’Neil and Jon Stafford—leading the helm, the play’s casting is something of which Bakunas remains proud. In fact, he had their roles cessed out when he and his wife, Linda Lavin, first saw the play on Broadway in 2009.

“We try to find things suited for our community of players,” Bakunas says. “I knew Michelle would be perfect; she has so much weight, a fullness to her acting. All of these actors have the goods in them. . . . Mike is a generous, kind, self-effacing man; but I knew he could play a pompous, arrogant lawyer. We all have secret feelings we carry. As a director, it’s my job to find them. . . . I like to provide a safe environment, so the actors bring the most to the table.”

Only an 80-minute production, “God of Carnage” deals with a host of stereotypes and underlying issues that everyone in the audience will be able to relate to in some form or another. Misogyny, racism, bigotry—“it has it all!” Bakunas assures. Though the drama certainly reveals darker aspects of human nature, it’s not without humor, which makes the show most appealing.

“Comedy is real life,” Bakunas says. “Things that become funny are serious in one way, and they’re funny because one situation juxtaposes another. It’s almost like when you get different people next to each other; it’s funny to see them relate but comical when one may not get the other. ”

Red Barn is the first studio in North Carolina to secure the rights to “God of Carnage,” thus making it a premiere show not only in Wilmington but statewide. The connections Bakunas and Lavin have made in the industry allow them to continuously bring new and charged scripts to our theatre scene.

“We basically try to see everything on Broadway and determine if it would be a good play for us,” he says. “Most are Pulitzer Prize or award winners that people haven’t seen.” “God of Carnage” won the Tony for Best Play in 2009.

Having familiarized himself with Reza’s work, including acting in her 1994-written play, “Art,” when it ran in Thalian’s black box theater years ago, Bakunas connects to the wordsmith’s approach to writing. She’s concise and oriented on the bottom line.

“She doesn’t use wasted words and sing-song-y stuff,” he explains. “Her writing unfolds; she doesn’t have unnecessary scenes. She sets up characters like an artichoke or onion: Peel back every layer until you get to its heart.”

“God of Carnage” opens April 28 and runs through May 29, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. The tickets are $27 for adults, $25 for seniors and $15 for students. The play contains strong language. For reservations call 910-762-0955. (The film version of “God of Carnage,” directed by Roman Polanski, is already slated for release in 2012.)

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