Theatre Review: KILLER JOE in Toronto

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SHOCK reviews the new Toronto production of Tracy Letts’ horrifying melodrama KILLER JOE.

Like many (if not most) of you reading this, this writer’s point of entry into the world of playwright Tracy Letts came via director William Friedkin. His “return” to horror after a lengthy hiatus, 2006’s BUG, blew my mind; a dialogue-driven two-hander that was not about legitimate insects getting under the skin, but about the destructive rot of spiraling, un-medicated madness.  A filmed version of Letts’ play, BUG was a mesmerizing experience.

But as much as I was taken by that Michael Shannon/Ashely Judd-starring picture, it was Friedkin’s follow-up Letts adaptation, 2011’s KILLER JOE, that made me a fan for life. That film, in which Matthew McConaughey (returning to form after an endless spate of talent-squandering rom-coms) stars as the titular assassin, hired by a horde of lowlifes to commit murder most foul in the deep south, was what might be called a “Southern Gothic”, a tapestry of white trash whose wealth of truly terrible decisions lead to an intimate domestic apocalypse.

I was so electrified and energized by the film, I immediately tried to find other movies like KILLER JOE to watch. And I couldn’t find any. Sure, I found other violent southern-fried melodramas, but none had the arch balance of grim humor, rough sexuality and violence that Friedkin and Letts’ film did. None had that voodoo. And none had the wide canvas that allowed its actors to truly act.  None were based on anything Letts had written. None were KILLER JOE.

I love that movie.

Which is why I was overjoyed to learn that Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre, a renovated storefront theatre on the Danforth in the cities East end, and director Peter Pasyk were mounting a new production of KILLER JOE. See, the Coal Mine has no stage. It’s a space that seats 75 people and plays take place in the center of that room, allowing the audience to be almost complicit in the drama. Actors literally step over you to hit their marks.

In the case of KILLER JOE, which takes in the fetid trailer of redneck dirtbags Ansel and Sharla Smith, the action is so intimate that the theatre’s washroom and kitchen become the sets washroom and kitchen. Patrons are advised to use that washroom before the show starts as, once it does, it then becomes an essential part of the story. Of course, the Coal Mine has made a deal with the pizza place next door to let its patrons freely use their facilities, which was a blessing to my full bladder as the lineup for the Coal Mine can stretched long…

But I digress…

Credit set and lighting designer Patrick Lavender for sculpting this oddly interactive and supremely repulsive habitat, which, like the film and presumably previously productions of the play, is a love-letter to squalor. The couch is dusty, torn and revolting. The kitchen cabinets, fridge and white walls are smudged with that special kind of brown scum that builds up from endless cigarette smoke and general hygienic apathy. The ceiling consists of authentic trailer panels, with black lights above to create night, which is when most of the action in the play takes place. It’s not as decrepit as, say, Ratso Rizzo’s dump, but it’s damn close. And the audience is sitting in it. Marvelous.

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Now, back to the play itself.

Letts wrote KILLER JOE when he was a hustling, unemployed actor in 1990, at the age of 25 and it’s not surprising that it grabbed its audience immediately. The story is kinetic. In it, jittery nickel and dime drug dealer Chris (Matthew Gouveia) blusters into the trailer his clueless, grease-monkey dad Ansel (Paul Fauteux) shares with his shrill sexpot wife Sharla (Madison Walsh) with a proposition. Seems Chris has run afoul of some very bad people and owes them a considerable amount of money. His solution is to hire hot-shot police detective Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew Edison), who also moonlights as a paid assassin, to murder his mother, who everyone in the family hates, including Chris’ sister Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas). Seems Chris and Dottie’s mom has an insurance policy and Dottie is the beneficiary and Chris figures that when she’s taken out, they can all split the spoils. 

Seems like a good idea, right?

Enter Killer Joe, a suave, well-tailored, Stetson wearing dandy who agrees to do the deed in exchange for a healthy advance. As the Smiths have no money, Joe demands a “retainer” in the form of Dottie, who he quickly develops a bizarre sexual obsession with.

To reveal more about what happens in KILLER JOE, would spoil its sickening and often shockingly funny narrative. Suffice to say, however, that legendary K-fried-C sequence does make an appearance here. And if chicken-leg fellating aint your thing, stay home.

In fact, stay home if the following triggers offend your delicate sensibilities:

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That wonderful sign sits squarely in the lobby of the coal mine, alerting its patrons to the graphic nature of the play. And it’s not an exaggeration. The play – like the film – opens with Sharla naked, letting her horrified step-son into her home in the middle of the night and, as Sharla, Walsh is equally uninhibited. It’s admittedly a pleasantly lurid shock to be sitting only inches away from the unclothed actress as Chris chastises Sharla for “coming to the door with her beaver puckered out like it was trying to shake my hand”.  Hilarious and surreal.

The rest of the cast is equally as uninhibited, doffing their duds without shame (all but Gouveia, that is) and engaging in all manner of transgression. And the violence is indeed graphic. In one key scene, Joe smashes a characters face and I saw a jet of blood pump into the crowd, directly into a young woman’s eye! It was exciting to veer my attention from the drama in the play to the drama of the poor lass clawing at her eye while her sort-of concerned boyfriend similarly bisected his attentions. Disorienting and fantastic.

But a play like KILLER JOE rests or fails on not just the physical attributes of its actors, but their abilities to, you know, act. To become these people and to slip convincingly between Letts’ knee-slapping absurdity and his cringe-inducing horror. And man, is the cast of KILLER JOE game.

Gouivea is a revelation, filled with a manic energy and, with his hang-dog eyes and desperation, he’s oddly sympathetic. As the story progresses, we only see Chris as a sad little boy who was born into Hell and whose best intentions have led him back there time and time again. As his father Ansel, Fauteux is primarily the comic relief, though beneath his amusing confusion lurks a darker portrait of a man who affects nothing and whose apathy has helped make the monsters around him. Endicott-Douglas’ Dottie is the heart and hero of the story, an innocent who is offered up for sacrifice and goes along with it, as she does with everything, blindly trusting that it will all work out, which of course we know it never does and never will. Edison’s Joe is initially a harder sell, at least for those who have seen Friedkin’s film. Indeed McConaughey’s rendition of the character is almost reptile-like, a lean, leering Gentleman sociopath whose greasy charm oozes out of him like sweet poison. Edison is far less intense. His Joe moves softly, mumbling his dialogue with a marble-mouthed drawl. And yet, as the story progresses, as Joe’s true, perverted nature emerges, Edison makes the character his own. By the time we reach the horrifying climax, Edison is a force of nature, as he should be.

Speaking of that ending, a special nod must go to Walsh, whose Sharla endures one of the most alarming sexual humiliations ever seen in any entertainment. And she sells it. She goes there. In front of us. It’s hard to watch but Walsh is fearless. The character of Sharla is, in fact the obvious villain of the piece. She’s a monster. And yet, it’s a complex role that demands much of its actor.  We despise her as much as we pity her.

And really, that’s the beauty of KILLER JOE. It’s not a cartoon. There are no absolutes. No judgements. No defined lines of good or evil.

“People do the best they can,” a melancholy Chris tells his beloved sister in a moment of remorse.

And that’s the secret of KILLER JOE. It’s about broken people, of hearts without hope, survivors of a secret holocaust that endures in darkest America and elsewhere. Of poverty and ignorance.  And yet, these people do the best they can. And therein lies the tragedy…

KILLER JOE runs until April 24 at the Coal Mine Theatre.

I strongly advise you see it.