The full-immersion experience of Killer Joe doesn’t end with the scene outside the theatre, on a rough patch of grass and dirt on the edge of the Italian Cultural Centre parking lot. There, you will enter what looks like a trailer park, complete with , a hot-dog barbecue, an old car that looks like it’s being lived in, and a beat-up Dolphin camper selling vodka lemonades. Lawn flamingos and clotheslines top off the experience.
But with this site-specific tale of a white-trash Texas murder plot that goes woefully awry, the fine folks at Itsazoo Productions take an audience of just over 30 right into a wood-panelled trailer where the beer-swilling, swearing, and often semi-naked Smith clan is often only a few feet from your face. During rehearsal, Ted Cole, as the hard-boozing family patriarch, dives to smash a bug only inches from where the audience’s feet will be, then gets into a rough tussle with his daughter, Dottie (Meaghan Chenosky) that sends a kitchen chair toppling perilously close to the seating area. (Note that, for shyer audience members, the seats at the end of this human hothouse are a little farther away.)
If the whole thing feels in-your-face intimate and claustrophobic—well, that’s kind of the idea.
“A big part of the story is that the characters are trapped here. They’re poor, they’re uneducated, and they have no way out,” explains the show’s director, Chelsea Haberlin, sitting on one of the audience’s retro kitchen chairs, lined up against the wall of the trailer through the kitchen and living room. “The trailer park is kind of this prison for them. So there is that sense of confinement, and when you put the audience in here you want them to feel that confinement.”
“Even the ground beneath you is unstable,” pipes up Cole, jumping on the floor and making the whole mobile home shudder.
Killer Joe, a play written by Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) and once made into a movie by William Friedkin with Matthew McConaughy as the sinister hitman the family hires to do in their mother, seemed to lend itself to the fly-on-the-wall voyeurism this setting brings, Haberlin says. “The only concern we had was safety, because there are some really intense scenes of fighting. So we had to spend eight or nine hours just choreographing these fights.”
For the actors, it means instant vulnerability for their complicated characters. “Emotionally, you can’t check out,” says Chenosky, whose Dottie is the emotional centre of the play, a sort of childlike, ethereal teen who attracts the attention of the maleficent hitman, Joe.
“The first scene is just kind of chaos,” Cole explains. “You see what life is like for these people. Then Killer Joe comes in, he likes structure; everyone has to adjust to that and everything derails.”
The story is dark, replete with sex and violence, but it also has its moments of comedy—black as it is. “Without the funny this play doesn’t have real resonance,” Haberlin stresses.
With work like this, she’s trying to get out younger audiences to theatre—audiences looking for a different experience than film, something rawer and more real.
“We like to think of it as an event instead of a play,” she says. “Come with friends, get a drink, have a hotdog under the patio lanterns.” White T-shirts, trucker hats, and cutoff shorts optional."
Killer Joe takes place beside the Italian Cultural Centre from Thursday (April 17) to May 4.