Home Theatre Theatre review: Killer Joe will take you out of your comfort zone

Theatre review: Killer Joe will take you out of your comfort zone

Colby Wilson, Meaghan Chenosky, Sebastien Archibald, Ted Cole and Emma Slipp in the ITSAZOO Productions presentation of Killer Joe. Photo by Andrew Klaver.
Colby Wilson, Meaghan Chenosky, Sebastien Archibald, Ted Cole and Emma Slipp in the ITSAZOO Productions presentation of Killer Joe. Photo by Andrew Klaver.

Who knew that a visit to a trailer park could be so much damn fun?

ITSAZOO Productions once again proves themselves the masters of site-specific theatre in Vancouver by moving its audience inside a single-wide for an up-close and very personal production of Tracy Letts’s pitch black comedy, Killer Joe.

Located in the parking lot of the Italian Cultural Centre on Grandview, director Chelsea Haberlin and her team have erected a mini-trailer park whose main inhabitants are a down-and-out Texas trailer trash family eking out an existence.  It is inside the family’s home that we watch Letts’s story unfold as they are pulled into son Chris’s plot to kill his mother and collect her life insurance policy.

Letts’s script is not for the faint-of-heart; unrelenting in its portrayal of a base violence and sexuality, its blows fall upon the audience about as hard as those endured by his characters.  In this production however, that brutality lands with even greater force as we watch from the confines of the tiny trailer.  For those like us that chose the red seats (you can also choose blue seats as a more traditional theatrical viewing option from one end of the trailer), that proximity brought us so close to the action we could literally reach out and touch the actors.  And while that intimacy creates a sometimes cringe-worthy voyeuristic view of the happenings, it also highlights the incredible talent that Haberlin has gathered on “stage”.

Leading the way here is Colby Wilson in the titular role.  From the moment that Wilson walks on stage there is an underlying malevolence behind his shallow veneer that will make your skin crawl.  As he leers at the sister Dottie you immediately know there is little humanity behind the fake smile.  From here Wilson builds his Joe to a crescendo that is matched only by its violent ending.

As the sister Dottie, Meaghan Chenosky finds the right balance of innocence and smarts mixed with a delightful OCD quality that gives her even greater depth.  She might like her Road Runner cartoons, but don’t let that infantile quality fool you into any false sense of security.

Emma Slipp as the voluptuous step mom Sharla is as fearless as the rest of this cast, and not just because she opens the show half naked.  Her bravado is only as deep as her make-up and what she is forced to do with a piece of fried chicken will make you gag.

Rounding out the cast are Ted Cole and Sebastien Archibald as father and son, who manage remarkable control and an even more remarkable ability to illicit empathy.  At first glance, Cole brings to mind the great mix of vulnerability and resolve of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and Archibald finds his own layers in balancing his circumstance with a love for his sister.

Bringing it all together in the claustrophobic confines of the trailer is director Chelsea Haberlin whose attention to detail in both performance and space is unparalleled.  It can be the smallest of things that elevates a production from the good to the great, and Haberlin goes for the minutiae.

Helping to pull it all together are a production team that creates an immersive experience worthy of any Hollywood movie set.  Like Haberlin, there are few details that go unnoticed: from Carmen Alatorre’s realistic costumes, to Mishelle Cutler’s spot-on sound design and Lauchlin Johnston’s camera-ready set and lighting designs, it all comes together in perfect harmony.

If theatrical productions came with ratings, this production would definitely earn the NC-17 (no one under 18 permitted) rating that the 1992 film version originally received before it was re-edited for a softer Restricted rating.  But while its relentless violence, and smaller doses of nudity and simulated sex will not be to everyone’s taste, if you can get past any potential uncomfortableness you might have, it will be an experience that you won’t soon forget.

The best piece of theatre so far in 2014, Killer Joe is worth a trip to the trailer park and outside your comfort zone.  Be sure to sit in the red zone; and don’t worry, the K Fried Chicken smell will come out in the wash.

By Tracy Letts. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin. An ITSAZOO Productions presentation.  On “stage” in the Italian Cultural Centre parking lot (3075 Slocan St). Visit https://itsazoo.org for tickets and information.

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