To call the Off-Broadway hit Killer Joe by Tracy Letts a black comedy is a masterpiece of understatement. The final show of Raleigh Ensemble Players’ bold and daring 2004-05 season is midnight in a coalmine on Pluto!
This dark, deviant, and devilishly funny comedy, brilliantly staged by REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews on Miyuki Su’s incredibly realistic set, features more full frontal nudity than the average episode of the “Howard Stern Show” on E! and more bone-jarring violence than a typical episode of WWE’s “Raw” or “Smackdown.” Simulated sex, drugs, murder, and mayhem — Killer Joe has it all. If this play were a motion picture, it would be rated NC 17.
Indeed, the plot of Killer Joe reads like the backstory of one of the more scandalous episodes of “The Jerry Springer Show.” Adele Smith, the nasty never-seen mother of shiftless ne’er-do-well Chris (Ryan Brock) and sweet but simple-minded Dottie (Beth Popelka), steals two and a half ounces of cocaine from Chris, knowing that the BEST thing that will happen to Chris is that his irate drug supplier will break his arms and/or his legs. The worst thing: Chris takes the eternal dirt nap.
After mom rips him off, fighting-mad Chris goes to his dim-witted father Ansel (David Henderson) and slutty stepmother Sharla (Betsy Henderson) for help in recouping his losses. Chris has a plan. Since Adele has a $50,000 insurance policy, with Dottie listed as the sole beneficiary, she is worth more dead than alive to the Smith family. So, they hire a professional killer, Dallas police detective Joseph “Killer Joe” Cooper (Torrey Lawrence), to murder mom for $20,000 and the Smiths plan to split the difference four ways.
Almost immediately, there are problems. Killer Joe insists on payment in advance, and his price is $25,000, not $20,000. When the Smiths cannot raise even $1,000, Joe suggests an unusual “retainer” for his services: He will move into the Smiths’ ramshackle trailer home and shack up with their virginal daughter Dottie until paid in full. In making their Faustian bargain with this particular devil, the Smiths are obviously going to get more — much more — than they bargained for.
African-American actor Torrey Lawrence is an interesting choice to play Killer Joe. (Director Glen Matthews says Joe’s race is never specified in the script.) By casting a black actor as the suave but lethal killer-for-hire, Matthews ratchets up the tension between the rough-as-a-cob white-trash family and their unwelcome houseguest and fiercely hated deflowerer of their daughter. What Joe does with Dottie within the paper-thin walls of Dottie’s bedroom at one end of the trailer is the ultimate white-supremacist nightmare.
Torrey Lawrence is charismatic and smooth — wonderfully smooth — as Killer Joe, the urbane hitman who can snuff a mean old lady one moment and pull out his Bible and do his daily devotional the next. While the thin-skinned Smiths are always in a dither about something or other, Lawrence’s Killer Joe is the very picture of cool, completely detached from the constant bickering and backbiting going on all around him.
Beth Popelka is charming as Dottie, a white-trash ingénue and an eternal innocent. Dottie is sweet but spacey; she practices kung fu while watching old Bruce Lee movies on the family’s black-and-white TV. Dottie knows nothing of men, yet she senses something special in Joe and gives herself to him without reservation in one of the strangest seduction scenes in contemporary theater.
David Henderson is hilarious as Ansel, the butt-scratching potbellied patriarch of the Smith clan; and Betsy Henderson is a stitch as Sharla, who dresses like a harlot and acts like one, too, whenever Ansel is not around. Torrey Lawrence and real-life husband-and-wife David and Betsy Henderson are widely acknowledged as three of the Triangle’s finest actors. Based on their performances in Killer Joe, Beth Popelka and Ryan Brock are well on their way to joining the Hendersons and Lawrence in the acting pantheon.
Popelka bares her soul as well as her body in this performance; and Brock’s amusing impersonation of Chris as a stupid, whiney little peckerwood with a mean streak a mile wide is right on the money. Without Chris’ greed and unmitigated gall, there would be no dope deal gone awry and no murder for hire.
In creating REP’s most wildly imaginative set to date, scenic designer Miyuki Su reproduces the center section of a grungy single-wide mobile home, right down to the last crushed beer can and empty pizza box. She gets the white-trash ambience just right, and so does costume designer Diana Waldier, who dresses everyone except the title character like refugees from a Saturday-morning yard sale.
Lighting designer Thomas Mauney helps heighten the dramatic tension by skillful manipulation of his instruments, and fight choreographer Jason Armit does yoeman’s work in staging the knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred brawls that characterize Killer Joe.
With its visceral violence, its nudity, and its simulated sex, Killer Joe is not for all theatrical palates. But ticket-buyers who like to take a walk on the wild side, once in a while, will be amply rewarded by crackerjack characterizations and an outstanding staging of a brilliant black comedy that explores the dark side more thoroughly than Darth Vader.
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Killer Joe Thursday-Saturday, April 28-30, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 1, at 3 p.m.; Thursday, May 5, at 8 p.m.; Friday, May 6, at 10:30 p.m.; and Saturday, May 7, at 8 p.m. in Artspace Gallery 2, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with ID and $12 seniors 60+ and active-duty military personnel), except pay-what-you-can performance April 28th ($5 suggested minimum) and $10 late-night performance May 6th. GROUP RATES are available. Note 1: There will be a full accessible, audio-described and sign-language-interpreted performance on April 29th, with large-print and Braille programs and a “tactile tour” starting at 7 p.m. Note 2: Following the May 1st performance, there will be a “How’d They Do That?” session in which the audience can explore the Smiths’ trailer with the show’s designers. 919/832-9607 (TTY 835-0624) or http://www.realtheatre.org/JOEreservation.html [inactive 9/06]. Raleigh Ensemble Players: http://www.realtheatre.org/joe.html [inactive 9/06].
Raleigh Ensemble Players will conclude its 2004-05 season April 21-May 7 with Tracy Letts’ R-rated Off-Broadway hit Killer Joe, which is set in a Texas mobile-home park. This delightful dark comedy, staged by REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews, chronicles the misadventures of the Smiths — Chris (Ryan Brock), Ansel (David Henderson), Sharla (Betsy Henderson), and Dottie (Beth Popelka) — the redneck family that put the D in dysfunctional.
In reviewing the 1998 Off-Broadway production, Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote, “…[A]lthough the characters seldom invite your sympathy in any traditional way, you are utterly engaged by them. Killer Joe has the enjoyable hairpin turns of the standard mystery thriller, but it’s the skewed, shifting relationships that keep you hooked.”
REP’s Glen Matthews says, “REP first started considering this play about two and a half years ago. I happened to run across a description of the play and it sounded interesting, so I ordered a copy. I read the play and was blown away; I couldn’t believe what I was reading and seeing in my head. It screamed REP. And it was very funny. I shared the script with our artistic committee and a couple of actors, and it provoked some very strong reactions ... both positive and negative. And that’s always a good thing.”
Matthews claims, “Killer Joe is a dream script for any director. I mean, take five passionate people, cram them into a trailer, add a tuna casserole and some intense circumstances, and let them go to town on each other ... who wouldn’t want to be a part of bringing that madness to life?
“Since first encountering this script,” he notes, “I’ve always felt connected to the characters. I guess growing up in rural South Mississippi with a loud-talking momma, two balls-to-wall brothers, a father who raked the gravel in the driveway to hide the tire tracks, and a goat named Goober had more of an influence on me than I originally thought.”
Matthews says, “It’s the people who inhabit the trailer that make Killer Joe a wild and fascinating journey. Many critics feel that Mr. Letts’ play is peopled with stereotypes. Several members of our artistic committee felt the same way. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that I knew these folks. I grew up with them, listened to their stories, watched them make mistakes. They weren’t the most beautiful people, and they weren’t always nice to each other, but deep down I knew they loved each other. And love makes you do crazy things sometimes.”
When the curtain rises, Matthews says, “Chris Smith (Ryan Brock) is in trouble; he owes a fellow named Digger Soames a large sum of money and the cocaine he was going to sell in order to pay Digger back has been stolen ... by his own Mother, Adele. As the play begins, Chris arrives at his father Ansel’s (David Henderson) trailer, hoping that Dad will bail him out. Sharla (Betsy Henderson), Chris’ stepmom, meets Chris at the door, and the fireworks begin. Their arguing wakes Ansel, and Chris pitches his plan: hire Dallas Police detective Joe Cooper (Torrey Lawrence) to kill Adele. Once Adele is dead, the family can collect the benefit — Chris’ sister Dottie (Beth Popelka) is the beneficiary — and pay Killer Joe his fee of $20,000. The remaining money can go to cover Chris’ debts.”
Matthews adds, “Joe arrives at the trailer to meet Chris and discuss the job. Chris is running late and Joe surprises Dottie, who is practicing her kung-fu in the living room. Chris begins the negotiations and learns that Joe’s fee is $25,000, not $20,000, and it must be upfront. However, sensing Chris’ desperation, Joe suggests the possibility of a retainer: Dottie. As one might imagine, everything goes downhill from there.”
In addition to director Glen Matthews, the show’s production team includes set designer Miyuki Su, lighting designer Thomas Mauney, costume designer Diana Waldier, and fight Choreographer Jason Armit.
“The script is incredibly specific in as far as what it demands of both the actors and the production team,” says Glen Matthews. “This is especially the case when it comes to the environment. The action unfolds entirely inside a mobile home ... a mobile home, which by play’s end is almost completely demolished. It’s a level of scenic realism that we have not explored in quite some time. Couple this with the fact that the play ends with an extended period of violence, and you’ve got quite a task ahead of you.
“To assist us in meeting these challenges, our trailer — a structure that will actually split Artspace’s Gallery 2 (and the audience) in half — was assembled in a storage unit off-site at the start of the rehearsal process,” Matthews explains. “The actors were able to rehearse in their home almost from day one, allowing us to troubleshoot very early on. The violence was also set and rehearsed in the actual space, helping to build trust, comfort, and confidence among the actors. This past weekend, the mobile home was moved piece by piece into Artspace, and our designers have been busy adding the final touches ever since.
“When dealing with interiors,” Matthews says, “realism forces you into some tricky territory. And while it’s often tough to navigate, especially when you’re trying to determine where realism ends and theatricality takes over, we’ve faired quite well, due largely in part to a metaphor inherent within the script. Chris loves rabbits, and at one point in his past, he tried to start a rabbit farm. In a conversation with Joe, he details what happened when a rabid animal got into the rabbit’s pen. What the audience hears is ultimately much like that which they experience at the end of the play: ‘They just tore each other apart. Their eyes rollin’ and foamin’ at the mouth, and ... and screamin’.’ We thought it important that this powerful imagery serve as our guide in the decision-making process.”
Matthews warns, “REP’s production of Killer Joe contains material and situations that some may find disturbing. It is not intended for individuals under 17. You’ll laugh; you’ll squirm; and you’ll more than likely never look at fried chicken the same way again.”
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Killer Joe Thursday-Saturday, April 21-23 and 28-30, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 1, at 3 p.m.; Thursday, May 5, at 8 p.m.; Friday, May 6, at 10:30 p.m.; and Saturday, May 7, at 8 p.m. in Artspace Gallery 2, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with ID and $12 seniors 60+ and active-duty military personnel), except pay-what-you-can performance April 28th ($5 suggested minimum) and $10 late-night performance May 6th. GROUP RATES are available. Note 1: There will be a “Meet the Smiths” post-show reception and talk-back session April 23rd. Note 2: There will be a full accessible, audio-described and sign-language-interpreted performance on April 29th, with large-print and Braille programs and a “tactile tour” starting at 7 p.m. Note 3: Following the May 1st performance, there will be a “How’d They Do That?” session in which the audience can explore the Smiths’ trailer with the show’s designers. 919/832-9607 (TTY 835-0624) or http://www.realtheatre.org/JOEreservation.html [inactive 9/06]. Raleigh Ensemble Players: http://www.realtheatre.org/joe.html [inactive 9/06].