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Killer Joe at The Laboratory Theater tests the boundaries of community theater

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Tom Hall
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The dictionary defines unsettling as distressing, disturbing and upsetting. The Laboratory Theater of Florida invokes these very emotions with the Southwest Florida premiere of Killer Joe, on stage now through February 5th.

Written by Tracy Letts, who is best known for August, Osage County, Killer Joe is replete with beautifully written passages and incredible playwriting. For good or bad, that gets overshadowed by the play’s unseemly characters and pure pulp fiction plot. Characterized by profanity and expletives, full frontal nudity, simulated sex, sexual assault and gritty physical violence, the production tests the boundaries of community theater.

That’s precisely what Lab Theater patrons have come to expect over the company’s thirteen seasons.

It’s also the type of play that thrills Director Nykkie Rizley.

“I’m drawn to things that are over the top,” Rizley divulges.

“I’m drawn to things where we push the envelope to a point where we dissect the nasty part of humanity to a point where we get so uncomfortable that we become more comfortable with ourselves again. Things that make us feel normal again because there’s no way any of us would do these abnormal things.”

The catalyst for the abnormal things that happen in this play is a small-time drug dealer by the name of Chris Smith who is in debt to the wrong people and fears for his life. He blames his mother, Adele, for his current situation because she flushed his inventory and threw him out of her house.

Mom happens to have a $50,000 life insurance policy payable to his adoring sister, Dottie. So Chris’ solution is to hire a hitman, make it look like an accident and pay off his supplier with his share of the insurance proceeds, which Dottie will unquestionably share. And his dad, Ansel, and , stepmother, Sharla, happily go along with Chris’ machinations. So, they hire Joe Cooper, a police detective who moonlights as a contract killer, to dispatch mom.

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Tom Hall
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“So watching someone making a bad choice is always interesting as an audience member,” Rizley continues.

“As an audience member, we get very connected to the characters. And when we watch them and they make good choices and things go well for them, it can make our hearts happy. But there’s something to be said about our what happens to our psyche, to our emotions, to our blood pressure when someone that we connect to, on whatever level it’s on, when we watch them make a bad choice. And there’s that little thought that we have in the back of our head, ‘Oh, this can’t go well.’”

And, of course, it doesn’t go well. While we don’t see Adele get whacked on stage, there’s plenty of other on-stage violence. In fact, there’s so much physicality that the cast rehearses the myriad stage combat scenes for a good hour prior to each performance.

Steven Coe plays Chris. He’s no stranger to playing characters who take a beating on stage, which he did as Andri in Andorra, Sandro Botticelli in Botticelli in the Fire and James Fingal in Lifespan of a Fact. But playing Chris has tested his acting skills in exacting new ways.

“I’ve been known to play certain high energy characters before, but never to this extent,” Coe concedes. “There’s lots of physical work. Lots of bursting energy and twitching and physical ticks …”

Coe
Tom Hall
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And lots of blood.

Rizley has been doing special effects and blood work for the better part of a decade. She’s developed a couple of gadgets specifically for this show, although I won’t tell you how, when or why.

Justin Larsche plays coldblooded, no-mercy Joe Cooper. For him, it’s a break-out role. As usual, Coe is sensational, as is Ryan Adair, who makes his Lab Theater debut as Chris’ dad, Ansel. But there aren’t enough superlatives to describe the work that Heather Johnson and Adrial McCloud do as stepmom Sharla and sister Dottie.

Spoiler alert, the latter is not as innocent, naïve or dim-witted as she first appears. Both actresses are tasked with playing the victims of both physical and mental abuse and sexual assault.

Lab Theater utilizes both intimacy contracts and intimacy coordinators in any production that involves on stage touching or simulated sex. These too are reviewed with the actors prior to each performance as an actor’s emotional state or physical condition could change from one night to the next. Bloating, menstruation or a cold sore can change the way or places an actor is comfortable being touched. That’s especially true in Killer Joe, whose simulated sex and sexual assault scenes not only push the envelope, but will cause you to never look at a Kentucky Fried chicken drumstick the same way again.

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Tom Hall
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“So the audience reaction to shows like this and moments of violence is always very interesting,” Rizley observes.

“As a director, I usually stand in the back of the audience and watch my shows not by looking at the stage, but by looking at the audience to see how they’re going to react. It’s so different from person to person. You’ll have one person cringing sitting next to a person who’s laughing. Everyone’s visceral reaction to something that forceful is always different and you never know how you’re going to react. No one knows how they’re going to react in that moment.”

But Letts, Rizley and the Lab didn’t do Killer Joe simply because it is raw and edgy. Like day-time soap operas (think Eastenders), Killer Joe incorporates some of the best attributes of Greek tragedy.

While Joe Cooper and Chris Smith are antiheroes than tragic heroes, they and the other characters all possess fatal flaws (harmartia) and plenty of hubris or arrogance. Each is deeply narcissistic in their own peculiar ways. There’s suffering, a doublewide trailer full of human misery, impending doom, dark-as-night humor and the kind of plot twist that would make Aristotle wax philosophic.

But what Killer Joe delivers most is good old-fashioned catharsis – a purge of emotion that’s the earmark of great theater.

Or as Rizley puts it, the show makes us feel normal again because there’s no way we would ever – in a million years - do such abnormal, amoral, reprehensible things.

Right?

“There are some people who like to take strolls on the beach; some people like to curl up with a good book (me included); there are some people who are lazy river people at an amusement park;, and then there are some people who want to go on the devil’s drop, who want to go on roller coasters that go over 100 mph and twist you and turn you. This is that kind of play. This play is not the lazy river. This play is the roller coaster that you stand in line for for three hours.”

So if you go, prepare to be shaken, twisted and turned.

Prepare to be unsettled.

Killer Joe is on stage at Lab Theater in the downtown Fort Myers River District through February 5th.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

This Spotlight on the Arts feature is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.