Posted in Indianapolis theater: reviews

“Killer Joe” at Theatre on the Square

4 stars

Oral rape with a “KFriedC” chicken leg.

This is a summation of the lewd lack of morality found in Killer Joe, the first play by Tracy Letts, who went on to pen the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama-winner August: Osage County. Theatre on the Square stages this playwright’s inaugural exploration into his penchant for darkness in its cabaret theater, which puts the audience claustrophobically close to exposed buttocks and graphic fight scenes.

Calling this “family” dysfunctional, psychopathic, or trailer trash is an insult to those labels. The Smiths plot to have the estranged ex-wife of Ansel whacked in order to collect her insurance money, an idea motivated by Chris’s (Ansel’s son) desperation to avoid being whacked himself by his drug pushers. (However, if they recycled the astronomical amount of beer cans they accumulate in any given day, they would quickly raise the money.) Enter the play’s namesake, Killer Joe Cooper, a detective nefariously moonlighting as a hit man.

These are raw characters, and director Lori Raffel mines the cast for that rawness. Nate Walden as Chris and Lisa Marie Smith as Sharla, Ansel’s second wife, have a twisted sense of entitlement, exhibiting the same casual blood lust that winds Joe so tightly, though Chris and Sharla seem incapable of outward self-control, which is Joe’s (usual) default. (Smith’s and Walden’s characters would be excellent candidates for a tabloid talk show if their shouting matches, their favored conversational tone, didn’t destroy their vocal chords after five minutes.) Ben Asaykwee executes his cruelties with Hannibal Lecter-type calm, but when he gets really angry, his pent-up rage is a physical explosion. Asaykwee is at his best in these hands-on moments. What is supposed to be a steely disposition often comes off as just flat.

Smith’s Sharla is glorious in her Texas-drawling, big-haired glory. Her Sharla would pick fights in the Walmart clearance aisle. Dan Scharbrough is a benignly distracted Ansel and seamlessly refocuses on his static-y TV. He is a foil to Walden’s excitable Chris. Scharbrough affects baffled simple-mindedness, and when Ansel is willing to sacrifice his son to save his own hide, his turn is believable.

While Joe should be the most disquieting character given his disposition and side work, Jaddy Ciucci’s Dottie is the most enigmatic of the group. She is obviously mentally disturbed, which her father, in his naive way, speculates could be due to her virginity. She is disassociated but observant at the same time, sleepwalking (often literally) through most of the action and murmuring occasionally creepy non-sequiturs (“I can’t sleep with Mamma in the room.”). This character could be seen as a throwaway (how her family sees her) with her one-note persona, but Ciucci makes her sympathetic and somehow fascinating.

The play could be viewed as a study of misogyny: the crafty women are punished; the vulnerable one is bartered. Sharla takes the brunt of the crude: in the first scene, her stepson Chris complains of her beaver hanging out, and she is the victim of the above-mentioned fellatio.

Even the second-weekend run of the show was packed, so make reservations early for its final weekend.

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freelance editor and writer

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