Under 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.
It 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.
Apparently 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.