BWW Reviews: KILLER JOE at SeeNoSun OnStage is a Knockout

By: Jun. 22, 2014

Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Letts loves the idea of a dysfunctional family. In his most famous work, August: Osage County, Letts gives us a glimpse into the well-to-do Weston family as they cope with pain and sorrow. In his first produced play, Killer Joe, Letts shows us the pain and sorrow caused by a down-on-their-luck family in Texas. The rarely produced play (and rarely seen 2011 movie) is dark and gritty both in context and character. The dysfunctional family at the "heart" of the story centers around Ansel and Sharla, his hot young second wife; his two children: Chris, who is in constant trouble, and the slow Dottie; and the title character - a Dallas detective who moonlights as a hitman.

Killer Joe was written in 1991, but first performed in 1993 and is full of dark symbolism as this trailer park family hires Killer Joe to kill Chris and Dottie's mother. And as hit man plays go, this follows the normal routine, but Letts puts an ominous dark spin on the tale of what is probably the world's second oldest profession.

In the production currently running at the DC Arts Center in Adams Morgan, fairly new theater company SeeNoSun OnStage produces a frightening production that does not hold back in any aspect. Director Michael Wright has assembled a fine ensemble that is not afraid to let go of all inhibitions. The small space at DCAC is the perfect venue to stage this in your face production and Wright gracefully navigates Lett's disturbing script with perfect irony. There is nothing graceful about these characters or situations but Wright manages to choreograph the on stage action beautifully without holding back.

The 2011 NC-17 movie caused a bit of controversy when it was first released, particularly in part due to a scene involving Gina Gershon and a chicken leg. That scene is intact here and succeeds its purpose in making the audience uneasy. What's that famous quote about theater? "The goal of the theater is to comfort the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable." Well Wright and his madcap actors achieve the latter part of that and it is thrilling to see something so unnerving that I didn't know whether to be amazed or offended at the end.

Playing the title role, Sun King Davis has a manipulative air about him that he maneuvers through the role with a devilish charm and an authoritative charisma. Likewise, the father-son duo of Matthew Marcus and William Aitken are great in their scheming with each other and betrayal as well. Aitken in particular, as things start to fall apart transitions from a tough trailer living, beer guzzling under achiever to a sorrowful mess that truly loses the most in the end. In addition the trio of men is the gorgeous Mallory Shear who in a small and pivotal role is probably put through the most torture, both as a character and as an actress. Shear and Davis together in the aforementioned controversial scene together make the audience completely uneasy and filled the small space with heavy tension.

Out of the very fine cast, the biggest standout is Jennifer Osborn as the young and dumb Dottie. Osborn's portrayal reminded me a bit of Laura Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, the girl who is "different" as her brother says. In a way the relationship between Dottie and Chris is not unlike Laura and Tom. Osborn is able to create this character without becoming crippling herself and she let's all of her inhibitions down and becomes so entangled in the mess created by others that her journey is really the only one who becomes the true victim. Osborn's characterization is innocent without naivety.

Technically, Wright and his crew use the space particularly well. The program notes do not list a specific a sound designer, but the sound design was the best part of the tightly controlled technical aspects. From the period appropriate music, to the balancing of the sound between the diegetic and non-diegetic sound was superb. In addition, a special note was made in the program to attribute Food Wrangler to Diane Freeman. Freeman sure has her job to do in this show, with quite a lot of food eaten and drunk on stage and it is well noted that there is a dedicated person in charge of this, which adds to the realism of this brutal piece.

There is not a weak spot in this well polished and perfectly dirty production. It is most definitely not for children or those who are easily offended. There is a quite a bit of language, violence, and nudity, all of which adds to the story and none of it felt grotesque or unnecessary.

Killer Joe runs through June 29th at DC Arts Center in Adams Morgan.

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