Theatre Review – Coal Mine Theatre/Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe

killerjoe1Under artistic curator Ted Dykstra and artistic producer Diana Bentley, Coal Mine Theatre has become synonymous with quality and professionalism. The venue may be a storefront on The Danforth, but Coal Mine productions are top of the line in terms of programming and theatrical values. The company likes to style itself off off Broadway in design, and it’s a good comparison, because for many New York theatre goers (including visitors), off off Broadway is the last bastion of raw excitement amidst the musicals and safe dramas of the bigger theatres.

The Coal Mine mantra is to engage the audience with provocative material, and its newest production certainly hits the mark. Killer Joe (1991) is American playwright Tracy Letts’ first play. He is most famous for August: Osage County which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Letts’ specialty is family dynamics, no matter what rung of society his plays showcase. In Killer Joe, Letts has reached into the lowest strata of the gene pool. The protagonist family actually lives in a trailer so calling the Smiths trailer park trash is spot on. The play belongs to the genre I like to call low life comedy. Some of the works of American Sam Shepard and Canadian George Walker fit the category as well as Canadian Lee MacDougall’s High Life. Their worlds are populated by marginal people for whom crime and violence are a way of life. Men drink beer and knock their women around, yet despite the blood and gore, black humour abounds. Dialogue tends to be outrageously funny.

The Smiths live in a Texas trailer park. A Confederate flag is proudly on display and the fridge is filled with beer. The family is comprised of father Ansel (Paul Fauteux), son Chris (Matthew Gouveia), daughter Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) and stepmother Sharla (Madison Walsh). The plot revolves around hiring an assassin to kill Chris and Dottie’s hated mother to collect her insurance. The assassin in question is the Killer Joe of the title (Matthew Edison) who just happens to be a Dallas police detective. To give any more details would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, that from the moment Killer Joe Cooper steps into their lives, the Smiths are headed into further chaos.

killerjoe2It is very important that Killer Joe be a sex god, and Edison, with his tall frame, tight pants, cowboy boots and 10-gallon hat makes a gorgeous specimen indeed. The audience must find Killer Joe attractive or there is no story. Edison commands with a soft voice that terrifies. Everything about him is alpha male. He is one very sexy badass who infuses the play with his testosterone. In short, Edison’s Killer Joe is every feminist’s nightmare – a totally seductive bad boy who attracts smart good girls.

Endicott-Douglas as Dottie is the innocent. Her young face, blonde hair, wide eyes, and soft voice are a perfect picture of someone who transcends the sordidness of her world. She is a wonderful foil for Killer Joe. The rest of the cast is marvellous. Fauteux (who has never given a bad performance in his life) brings the simple, easily-manipulated Ansel convincingly to life. Walsh manages to be a tarty Sharla with brains, which is not an easy job. She must show both sides of her character, and Walsh pulls off the resident sex pot who also happens to be the sharpest tool in the Smith tool box. It is Gouveia as Chris, however, who gives the stand-out performance. He is the driver of the plot, a coiled spring of bitterness who is willing to bring his family crashing down around his ears. Gouveia’s restless energy never lets up for one moment. He is a young actor who has a great career in front of him.

killerjoe3Apparently director Peter Pasyk has been shopping Killer Joe around for years, but the play was deemed too violent and amoral by safer companies. It is Coal Mine who is mounting the Toronto premiere of Killer Joe, and kudos to them. Kudos also to Pasyk who has showcased both the relentless drive of the play, as well as the dark humour, without ever losing Letts’ edge. Fight director Steve Wilsher has choreographed very scary mayhem, and a warning, front row audiences are in the firing line, so keep your feet tucked in. Patrick Lavender’s set is suitably trashy, while Christopher Stanton’s sound design of mostly country and western singers adds to the atmosphere. Jenna McCutchen’s costumes are aptly down market.

In short, Killer Joe, replete with violence and nudity, makes for a disturbing (if very entertaining) visit to the dark side. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

Killer Joe by Tracy Letts, directed by Peter Pasyk, Coal Mine Theatre, Apr. 5 to 24, 2016.

 

 

 

Theatre Review – The Coal Mine/Mike Bartlett’s Bull

3Sadly, I couldn’t get to The Coal Mine’s latest production until late in the run. I say sadly, because the play closes this weekend which means I’m trumpeting a superb theatre outing that is almost at its end.

The Coal Mine, whose performing space sits under a pizza restaurant on the Danforth, is in its first season. Their mandate, under artistic producer Diana Bentley and artistic curator Ted Dykstra, is to create an off-Broadway experience that is as intimate as it is provocative. Their first production, The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis, was a monster hit. This second play, Mike Bartlett’s award-winning Bull, is another jewel in Coal Mine’s crown. Thirtysomething Bartlett is among the Young Turk playwrights who are spreading shockwaves through British theatre, and Bull is harrowing to say the least.

Bartlett’s focus is a sales office where a team of three are waiting for a meeting with their boss. Their firm is downsizing and one of the three will be let go. Think of Waiting for Godot meets capitalism, although in this case, the boss does show up to do the dirty. The crux of matter is that two of team, namely the sleek Isabel and lounge lizard Tony, treat their colleague Thomas, who is not one of the beautiful people, with utter contempt. The fact that they regard their cruelty to him as a matter of fact, even as a necessity, is the worst aspect of social Darwinism writ large. Their relentless bullying, harassment and humiliation of Thomas is like watching a wolf pack circling its prey for the kill.

Bull-0253For me, director David Ferry can do no wrong, and once again he has shown his brilliant craftsmanship. Ferry has understood absolutely that this play depends on timing, especially since the viperous verbal darts hurled at Thomas have to aggregate collectively like death from a thousand cuts. The English accents also work very well.

As the bitchy Isabel, Bentley presents a woman who is supremely confidant, magnificently establishing herself as a warrior of corporate feminism. She is attractive but deadly. Handsome Damon Runyon (I wonder if he is a relative of the famous Broadway writer) is perfect as the conniving, manipulate Tony, soft of speech, but murderous in intent. Mark Caven makes the most of his brief moments on stage as the cold fish boss Carter. He is rough, gruff and brutal with ice flowing through his veins.

When Dora nominations come around, Ryan Rogerson as the hapless Thomas, deserves to be among the nominees. He manages to be both feisty and vulnerable at the same time, and although he is neither passive nor submissive, nonetheless, his attempts to maintain face is a losing battle. It’s to both Rogerson’s acting acumen, and Bartlett’s writing skills, that Thomas is not a particularly likeable victim. His tormentors are far more interesting, which makes the play all the more disturbing, even subversive.

imagesSteve Lucas’ set is a cage that surrounds the action on three sides, but looking through the wire distorts one’s vision. It works in theory, but does get distracting over time. Nonetheless, the cage does conjure up thematic images like a bull ring, a bull pen, even bullying itself.

And a final note of kudos to The Coal Mine. The company’s knack for picking fascinating plays, and peopling the stage with talented actors to breath life into the words, makes The Coal Mine one of Toronto’s must see theatre experiences.

(The Coal Mine’s production of Mike Bartlett’s Bull runs from Mar. 17 to Apr. 5.)

 

 

Theatre Review – Stewart Lemoine’s The Exquisite Hour

This play is a charmer. It is also poignant and sentimental, yet laugh-out-loud funny. Sometimes we need gentle humour in our lives, and Lemoine, based in Edmonton, is not afraid to write plays that could be considered retro. All the more power to him.

It’s understandable why Ted Dykstra took on the role of Zachary Teale. It is absolutely against type. This outstanding actor/director is known for his outgoing, in-your-face personality. Zachary Teale is a bespectacled middle-aged nebbish, a confirmed bachelor who is a merchandise supervisor at Abernathy’s department store. The play is set in 1962, which is a more innocent age. This is not a play that could take place today. The Exquisite Hour is like watching a much-beloved old film on Turner Classic Movies.

When we first meet Zachary, he is in his backyard enjoying lemonade laced with bourbon. There he is – his trousers pulled up high above his waist, his chequered shirt covering an old-fashioned undervest that our fathers and grandfathers wore.

Into this serenity comes Mrs. Darimont. Actor Daniela Vlaskalic is wearing a big brimmed straw had with flowers on top, a shirtwaist dress widened by a ton of crinolines, super flat shoes, a large purse, and the de rigueur white globes. Congratulations to designer Marzena Cegys for both the period costumes and the lovely set – a fence with flowers spilling out over the top, and the sweet out door garden chairs and table.

It turns out that Mrs. Darimont has come to sell Mr. Teale the 1959 version of a set of encyclopaedias. She has brought “H” along to show Mr. Teale how the encyclopaedias can be used to create conversations, which is an excellent way to get to know people if you are shy – a perfect fit for Mr. Teale.

This is where director Ron Pederson comes into play big time. The vignettes with random “H” selections gerrymandered into a conversation that Zachery and Mrs. Darimont act out are absolutely hilarious. Imagine conversation starters that include the Belgian St. Hubert, the Hohenstaufen noble family, and while Hannibal is the third selection, they don’t quite get to converse about the famous conqueror of the Alps, because other things are happening between them.

Pederson’s direction is belly laugh funny, but he is also aware of the changing relationship between the two, and to give away the ending would be grounds for murder, so I’ll keep silent. Suffice it to say, that Pederson understands the dramatic arc of the play, and under his sympathetic direction, his excellent actors convey every subtle nuance of their encounter.

This play is a run-don’t-walk. It’s a most satisfying, old-fashioned theatre experience.

Stewart Lemoine’s The Exquisite Hour, The Theatre Department, (starring Ted Dykstra and Daniela Vlaskalic, directed by Ron Pederson), Factory Studio Theatre, Apr. 18 to 29, 2012