Theatre officials across North America get a queasy feeling in their stomachs when contemplating how to stage God of Carnage, Yasmina Reza's raucous comedy of manners without the manners.
It happens when they get to the scene where Annette, who has literally been made sick by her husband's behaviour, throws up all over her hosts' rare art books, their carpet and her spouse.
But it's not any old cookie-toss. In her script, Reza specifies "a brutal and catastrophic spray of vomit."
It a crucial scene where the bile between two couples who fight over an altercation between their sons begins literally to spill out. Reza doesn't tell theatres how to accomplish a special effect like projectile vomiting. Since producers on Broadway kept secret how they did it, regional theatres all over the continent have been trading tips over the past two years on the art of the barf.
"This is a strange business we work in," says Miles Potter, director of the current Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of God of Carnage. "Here we have all this high-end talent and experience and I'm saying, 'Fill the vomit thing again for another puking run. Will someone clean up the vomit?'"
The search for an upchuck machine began with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, which hosted the first Carnage production after its Broadway run closed in 2010. The company conducted extensive testing in search of a "surreal spray" and came up with a system powered by compressed air that sends a concoction of powdered split pea soup through a hose that runs up the back of the actress playing Annette and down to her wrist.
RMTC spent months early this year in trial and error -- trying to gauge the velocity so the spurting fountain, which occasionally hit the front row, has the right spray, as well as fine-tuning the colour and consistency of the phoney puke. Staff fashioned their own version, dubbed the Vominator 3000. It was a complex mechanism like the Broadway version, which had conked out once. Potter feared a vomit malfunction.
RMTC opted to go low-tech, using a hot water bottle fixed with a valve hidden inside a sofa cushion. Annette would pick up the cushion while seated on the sofa and basically give it the Heimlich maneuver to power a body-racking wave of puke. It was nicknamed the vomillow.
"We wanted the actress to have complete control," says Laura Lindeblom, RMTC's assistant production manager. "They found the pillow the best way to do it. She picks up the pillow and grabs her stomach, but she is really reaching in and opening the valve."
Potter cast a retching rookie in Vickie Papavs, who accepted the part knowing she had a weak gag reflex that might mean she didn't need to simulate spilling her guts. The smell made her particularly nauseated, but after two weeks she could execute a graphic and realistic hurl.
"I'm very proud of my vomiting," says Papavs this week. "I get a good spray. I get good velocity. And I get a good sound."
She was so convincing, a RMTC patron recently ran out of the theatre to tell staff that one of the actors was sick and throwing up onstage, and then complained that she shouldn't have been made to work when she was so ill.
Not all of the performances were so easy to stomach.
"There was one show in which the hot water bottle tipped back and all of the vomit went down the front of my dress and ran into my shoe and my foot was swimming in vomit," Papavs says. "To get the extra laugh, I poured it out of my shoe. That's my lasting memory of God of Carnage."
Perfecting the stage vomit was a rare bonding experience for the various RMTC departments.
"It was really fun," says Lindeblom, in her fourth season with the organization. "The brilliant thing was that no one person was able to take this project from beginning to end. There was a lot of cross-departmental work. Barf brought us all together."