In a city where real estate dominates the conversation and, to a great degree, fuels the collective angst, it seems right that the location, location, location of a new work of site-specific theatre would transform the experience from a night out at a play to one of the most intense evenings I can recall experiencing at the theatre.
"The theatre" in this case is a trailer park set constructed in the parking lot next to Vancouver's Italian Cultural Centre – complete with plastic pink flamingos and a barbecue cooking up hot dogs. And the show is Killer Joe, Tracy Letts's (August: Osage County) dark tale of a down-on-its-luck Texas family looking for a big break.
The production is the work of ITSAZOO, a young theatre company that seems to be having a gas presenting site-specific work. Directed by the company's general manager and co-artistic director, Chelsea Haberlin, the production is staged entirely in a trailer home, packed with an audience of 30, in chairs up against one of the walls and a tiny bleachers section at one end.
The trailer is decked out in sad decor that will remind you, if you're of a certain age, of your basement rec room – right down to the ashtray and the crocheted throws. A confederate flag hangs in the kitchen, the place is strewn with old take-out containers (Get it? Trailer trash?), an AM radio pumps out country tunes and a TV in the corner distracts with mindless programming. This is Texas, 1993.
In the middle of the night, Chris (Sebastien Archibald) bangs on the trailer's door, waking up his stepmother Sharla (Emma Slipp) and father Ansel (Ted Cole). Chris has been kicked out by his alcoholic, good-for-nothing mother – Ansel's ex-wife. Chris presents a plan to his dad: They hire Joe (Colby Wilson) – a cop who does contract killings on the side – to kill his mom, so they can pocket the $50,000 life insurance payout that will go to Chris's sister Dottie (Meaghan Chenosky). The windfall would allow Chris to pay off the threatening gangster to whom he owes money, and then maybe start a new life.
With the exception of the fact that it is great art, there is barely a shred of anything good in Killer Joe. Here we have a group of mostly despicable people living shabby, dead-end lives and yet managing to drive their meaningless existence even further into the ground with terrible decisions. There is extreme violence, sexual humiliation – and no redemption waiting in the wings. If there is any message here, it is that the pathetic cycle will continue. Now why would anyone want to sit through that?
I didn't. I particularly didn't have much of a stomach for the violence in the wake of the tragic events in Calgary that week.
In the truly immersive environment of the trailer, with the action literally in your face, you become connected to the story in a visceral way. These characters are trapped in their lives and you're trapped there with them; for a couple of hours, you are sharing this terrible experience.
It was terrific.
This work is presented in a site-specific environment not because some creative – or, worse, marketing – type wanted to be different or edgy or to make a splash. The intimate setting is integral to the experience. I sat and watched (or imagined what I couldn't see from my last-row seat), and I felt terror.
(The real-life howling wind and torrential downpour on a stormy opening night added to the spookiness.)
I wasn't sure about the performances initially – I was put off by Slipp's movie-of-the-week white-trash accent, in particular – but as the story intensified, so did the actors – especially Wilson, whose creepy chicken dinner scene was a ghastly triumph. Cole as the too-easily-convinced loser Ansel, and Chenosky as the sweet, simple Dottie were also excellent.
ITSAZOO's mandate, in part, is to "inspire other theatre practitioners by producing progressive theatre outside the traditional playhouse setting," and to "present theatre to a younger and more diverse audience by making innovative and unparalleled productions affordable to a wide demographic." (Tickets for this show are $25; $20 for students and seniors).
At a recent performance of the Arts Club Theatre's Helen Lawrence at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage in Vancouver, I was struck by the audience demographic. An innovative show like this, I thought, and there are no young people here to see it.
There is hope in a company like ITSAZOO. A production like Killer Joe gives you reason to believe that, presented with the right stuff, younger people can be lured back to the theatre. Wherever that may be.