YPT’s family classic and the Coal Mine’s violent thriller have nothing in common—except terrific performances.
Question: What do the classic musical of The Wizard of Oz and Killer Joe, Tracy Letts’s bloody, profane black comedy-thriller, have in common? Nothing, you’d say. Or, on second thought, they’re both set in the American heartland and both deal in their own way with the theme of family.
But if we’re talking about the new production of Wizard at Young People’s Theatre and the Coal Mine’s Toronto premiere of Killer Joe, then there’s one more thing they share—terrific acting. Both shows are a real pleasure to watch, for very different reasons.
The 1939 MGM film of The Wizard of Oz has many indelible performances: Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow, Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch, Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion. The most beloved, however, is Judy Garland’s Dorothy. If you’re going to do a stage adaptation of the movie, your Dorothy Gale better be able to hold a hurricane lantern to Garland’s yearning Kansas farm girl.
Happily, YPT has a wonderful Dorothy in Vanessa Sears, who lights up its main stage (the Susan Rubes Theatre) and sets the spirited tone for this thoroughly enjoyable production. Sears is forthright, headstrong, spunky, tender, loyal—all those qualities you want in a Dorothy. Her mannerisms and vocal inflections often suggest Garland without precisely imitating her, while in the one musical number excised from the movie, the legendary “Jitterbug,” she’s Garland the Broadway baby incarnate: a jazzy, jiving delight.
Taking the same approach as Sears, Justin Bott as the Lion avoids exactly replicating Lahr’s famous line readings, but taps into that great comedian’s deep vein of vaudevillian ham. David Coomber and Matthew G. Brown opt for their own characterizations as the Scarecrow and Tinman, respectively. So too does Amy Matysio, as a Wicked Witch with a wild, grey-cyclone hairdo and a bat-wing cloak, but no green skin—just green gloves. Jamie McRoberts, meanwhile, bypasses the Wizard movie and instead references the spinoff musical Wicked, giving us a ditzy, tap-dancing Glinda.
Director Joey Tremblay’s staging, in the YPT manner, replaces special effects with imagination and a little sleight-of-hand. David Boechler’s set and Robin Fisher’s costumes emphasize that the Land of Oz is a dream world built from the everyday trappings of Dorothy’s Kansas home. Musical director Reza Jacobs and his team (Ali Raney and Rob McLaren) recreate the lush Harold Arlen score with just a handful of instruments and make it sound fresh again. It’s always fun to revisit the great Arlen-Yip Harburg songs, but a special treat to hear “The Jitterbug,” and Tremblay’s dancing-in-the-aisles version—frenetically choreographed by Dayna Tekatch with phantasmagorical lighting by Louise Guinand—is the show’s highlight.
The Wizard of Oz ends with Dorothy back on her aunt and uncle’s farm, among the people she loves, in a cozy image of home worthy of a needlepoint picture. Contrast that with the filthy trailer occupied by the twisted Smith family of Killer Joe.
We’re not in Kansas anymore, we’re in Texas—a bleak, rain-sodden, white-trash Texas, where people dull their lives with cans of Budweiser and TV reruns, and maybe a bucket of “K-Fried-C” on celebratory occasions. Where hiring a hit man to kill your mother for her life insurance, so you can pay off a drug debt, seems like a brilliant idea.
The Smiths in Tracy Letts’s grimly funny 1990s play are like James M. Cain characters without the smarts. They’re trailer-trash cousins to the big-mouth junk shop schemers of David Mamet’s American Buffalo. Killer Joe, Letts’s shocking debut, was first produced in Chicago, Mamet’s town, but the playwright hails from Oklahoma and the piece is pure southern-fried noir. (Indeed, there’s a memorable scene involving fellatio with a chicken drumstick that will put you off of KFC for good.)
Oddly enough, Toronto has never seen a professional production of this play—even after Letts won the Pulitzer in 2008 for August: Osage County. Director Peter Pasyk makes up for that with a great, gritty little staging in the tiny Coal Mine space, where, depending on your seats, you may risk being spattered with fake blood or find yourself a few feet from an actor’s uncovered genitalia.
A sleazy-looking Matthew Gouveia is Chris Smith, the dude in hock to a murderous coke dealer, who decides the way to save his neck is by putting a hit on his booze-soaked mom. A dazed-looking Paul Fauteux is Ansel, Chris’s dim-wit dad, remarried to Sharla (Madison Walsh) and with no qualms about offing his ex-wife if there’s money in it for him. A baby-faced Vivien Endicott-Douglas is Dottie, Chris’s slightly brain-damaged kid sister, who is the reputed beneficiary of the insurance policy.
To do the dirty deed, the family hires Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew Edison), a cop who moonlights as a paid assassin. But Chris can’t pay Joe up front, so the killer takes the innocent Dottie as his “retainer” until the insurance money comes through.
Killer Joe was turned into a film in 2011 with another Matthew—Matthew McConaughey—in the handsome-but-creepy title role, and that’s a hard act to follow. Edison, however, nails the character: tall, black-clad, and sleepy-eyed, he has a bit of a Johnny Cash vibe going. You can believe he’d shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. His Joe is gracious, cool-headed, focused—everything that the Smiths aren’t. But then again, he’s also a monster: an ice-blooded predator who’ll kill a stranger for money and sleep with her virginal, lovestruck daughter as partial payment for his services. And what he does to Sharla at the play’s climax will make you shudder.
Letts’s family is comical in its horrifying foolishness, but also truly sad, an aspect that Pasyk brings out in his adroit direction of this superb cast. Gouveia is particularly good at showing the misery and desperation that fuel the angry Chris. But all the Smiths are pitiable on some level. Walsh’s self-possessed Sharla turns out to be an incompetent femme fatale, while the funniest character, Fauteux’s TV-addicted Ansel, is a pathetic coward. And, although there’s plenty of sex going on in the Smiths’ trailer, only Endicott-Douglas’s childlike Dottie ever talks of love. She has a touching scene in which she recalls to Chris how he used to entertain her when they were kids; it shines like a little shaft of tender light amid the dark violence of the play.
Patrick Lavender’s trailer set is tangibly grotty, especially so in the Coal Mine’s intimate room. When the actors aren’t naked, Jenna McCutchen’s well-chosen costumes say almost as much about their characters as the dialogue. Killer Joe has been a long time coming to town, but it was worth the wait.