Monday, 25 May 1998

Killer Joe, May 25, 1998

Killer Joe by Tracy Letts
Universal Theatre until June 14, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed on or around May 24, 1998

Would you kill your mother for the insurance? This family would.

Well, they would pay Killer Joe to do the deed then take the remainder that, we assume, could not be much more than $6,000 each; probably not even enough to buy a new annexe for their caravan home.

US playwright, Tracy Letts, created a seriously dysfunctional Southern White Trash family which director Adrian Butcher has successfully translated to the deep north of Australia. The design by Alan Surgener is a fine replica of a trashy trailer park site.

The production is compelling viewing and the style has a gritty realism that is offset by some very funny dialogue, absurd situations and troubled characters. It is unusual to see such realistic and disturbing violence on stage. Bloody make-up and clever stunt fighting are generally the realm of screen these days.

These are people who live in a moral vacuum, a world in which life is cheap, where you can sell your sister to pay your debts, hire a killer, demean your wife and beat your son.

 Surprisingly, Letts has written sympathetic characters, apart from Killer Joe (Steve Turner) who looks like a bank teller but is  a slimy and heartless misogynist looking for a virgin who is too dim to be manipulative. This he finds in Dottie the simple daughter of the family, played with sensitivity and humour by Kate Mulvany.

The production moves swiftly under Butcher's skilful direction. He has paid great attention to detail of characters and relationships and has accentuated the comic elements that heighten the shock value of the violence.

Performances are uniformly strong and actors work in a broad style. Jim Shaw is hilarious playing the father, Ansel as a gormless idiot. Jona Zeschke, as his son Chris, is credible as the classic loser who lost the farm literally and is now pursued by drug dealers. As his stepmother, Jo Wyndham as Sharla is suitably tarty.  Turner, as Joe, is ominously well mannered and dispassionate.

Letts has written a hit play reflecting his home state of Oklahoma. It has been performed in his new home of Chicago, in Sweden, Norway and London. The Australian production is produced by Diana Bliss and originated in Perth. It is a gripping night of naturalism.


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