Monday, February 17, 2003

So, I finally saw “Killer Joe” last Friday, and boy oh boy. What an amazing theatrical experience.

It’s not a pleasant play. Very intense, very disturbing in places (though laugh-out-loud funny in others). But it’s riveting theatre. It’s definitely not for kids, what with the full frontal nudity (male and female), and assorted acts of perversion and mayhem performed on stage. But for the rest of us, it’s essential Madison theatre.

The basic plot? It’s “Double Indemnity” in a Dallas trailer park. Hotheaded young redneck Chris (David Meldman) is in deep with some local gangsters, and in desperation, conspires with his dimwitted, TV-addicted father Ansel (Doug Holtz), strange sister Dottie (Katherine Jee), and slatternly stepmother Sharla (Cara Peterson) to have his mother killed for her insurance money. To do the deed, they hire scary “bad cop” and part-time hit man Killer Joe (co-director Mark Hisler). (We do briefly get to meet Chris’s mother Adele later on, but she doesn’t have any lines.) Soon, the betrayals among this motley little band of conspirators start flying thick and fast. But I won’t give anything away.

This production is astounding. The actors are all pitch-perfect: they inhabit their parts as though they were born to them, and never condescend to their characters for cheap laughs. Additionally, the Texas accents are nailed throughout – always a detail I appreciate. (See if you can spot which actor is actually British. If I hadn’t known in advance, I never would have guessed.) David Meldman shows both his character’s dangerous level of irresponsibility, and the real pathos lurking underneath his character (for whom nothing has ever gone, nor will ever go right). Doug Holtz is hilarious as the addled Ansel, whose immediate response in any crisis is to turn on the TV. Cara Peterson shocked me with how far she was willing to go as Sharla – she went to some very scary places both physically and emotionally, in an utterly fearless performance. Katherine Jee is appropriately spooky as Dottie, who “hasn’t been quite right” in some time, but whose emotional reactions are the touching heart of the play. And tying it all together is Mark Hisler’s chilling, charismatic performance as Killer Joe, who somehow manages to act as a “civilizing influence” on this family despite being a cold-blooded psychopath. Hisler stepped into the part midway through rehearsals – it’s to his vast credit that I can’t imagine anyone else playing the role any better. All five are perfectly cast, and play off each other brilliantly and with great emotional honesty, which is so vital in this story with all its intricate twists and turns.

The intricate sound design, by Mark Penner, and lighting design, by Ron Collins, are superbly and subtly used – Mark and Ron both outdid themselves. Damned if I haven’t forgotten who did the set and props, but they’re brilliantly and realistically “trashy” in their depiction of Ansel and Sharla’s double-wide trailer home, complete with a VERY badly worn screen door, and beer cans that just seem to keep piling up throughout the show. (They must have set aside half the budget for beer and Kentucky Fried Chicken, both of which are consumed in alarming quantities during the play.)

In short – this play will chill you. And it’ll keep you on the edge of your seat, as the violence keeps threatening to erupt from beneath the surface. You have just one more weekend (details are at www.killerjoe.net), so get over to the Bartell Theatre. You don’t want to miss this one.