Director – Jason Leyva
Lighting Design – Branson White
Sound Design – Branson White/Joshua Hahlen
Set Design – Jason Leyva
Costume Design – Ryan Matthieu Smith and Jason Leyva
Stage Manager – Branson White
Chris Smith – Joshua Hahlen
Sharla Smith – Leslie Boren Katz
Ansel Smith – Trey Albright
Dottie Smith – Hillary Brainerd
Killer Joe Cooper – Jason Leyva
Photos by Leslie Boren
Reviewed Performance 5/31/2014
Reviewed by Elaine Plybon, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
L.I.P. Service has taken on the difficult task of generating a pleasurable experience with a darker than dark comedy, written by Tracy Letts. In 2011, the play was adapted into a movie starring Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe. The movie received an NC-17 rating and the action in this play earns the same.
From the moment the audience is introduced to two members of the Smith family, Chris and his father Ansel, they are drawn into the dark world of a completely dysfunctional family comprised of the duo, along with Ansel’s wife, Sharla, and Chris’ young sister, Dottie. The action takes place inside the family’s dingy trailer. Chris and Ansel hire Killer Joe Cooper to kill Chris’ mother in order to cash in on a life insurance policy. The ensuing action reveals elements of murky relations, violence and lust as the audience is carried along to view the disgusting realities of this family who may seem more familiar to some than is comfortable.
The set, designed by Jason Leyva, is nothing short of superb. The small space in the back of the venue has been transformed into the dingy, dark and appropriately decorated interior of the Smith family trailer. As I walked past the set, I was fascinated by the attention to detail. This trailer exuded the epitome of low-class dwellers, complete with crushed beer cans, blanket curtains, window air conditioner and gauche artwork. The detail was so defined that there was meaning in the set itself. Amidst the bleak, dismal surroundings were oddities such as handmade afghans and pillows and a print at the back of the trailer depicting a dove, a symbol of hope. I leaned to my partner as we perused the set and said, “The only thing missing is a Jesus picture”, to which he replied, “it’s right there over the sink.” And indeed, it was! Along with the wonderful choices made for the décor, the kitchen itself was a working kitchen with running water, a lighted refrigerator and a microwave which heated a pungent tuna casserole at one point. The audience was treated throughout the evening to an array of scents to complement the action, or to increase our discomfort with it. Cigarette smoke, blended with tuna casserole, brought all into the atmosphere of the trailer.
The set was dimly lit through the entire play. With lighting designed by Branson White, the space at times seemed more unlit, but expertly placed lighting coming in from the windows illuminated the trailer just enough for the grotesque goings-on to be revealed inside. At times, the kitchen was lit with a fluorescent fixture, giving the actors a satisfactory pallor to mimic their lifeless existence.
Sound design by White and Joshua Hahlen was always just what was needed to enhance the action. The most repeated sound, that of the neighbor’s dogs barking, was exactly as annoying as the script called for, and the sound of rain on the trailer roof and light thunder made me feel as though I was really inside an aluminum box.
Costume design by Ryan Matthieu Smith and Jason Leyva was another element done with extreme detail and subtle nuance. The irony of a D.A.R.E. shirt on Chris when we first meet him was not unnoticed, nor was the shirt with lettering about momma’s boy in a later costume. Dottie’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle T-shirt reminded of her youthful mental level, and Ansel’s often seen tighty whities, which were thin and gray from wear and poor laundering, aptly suited his character. At times, the audience was privy to a little more skin than normal, with full male and female nudity peppered into the plot.
The play was perfectly cast by Leyva, who brought together highly experienced and talented actors who had a realistic family chemistry. Ansel and Chris were especially well cast as they were extremely believable as the father and son duo with more of a peer relationship than a familial one. The women in the play were also well cast and the talents of Leyva himself were especially suited to the role of Killer Joe.
The role of Chris Smith was convincingly played by Joshua Hahlen. Hahlen’s embittered portrayal of the son was emotional. A hint of rage lingered under every facial expression, in every clenched fist, and in nearly every dialogue.
Trey Albright’s portrayal of Ansel Smith was spot on. Every time he walked into the trailer and grabbed the television remote, there was a familiarity to his movement. The distracted nature of Albright’s gaze when witnessing or performing unsavory things revealed the shallowness of his character, and at the same time, the depth of meaning in that shallowness.
Sharla Smith was aptly played by Leslie Boren Katz. Wearing big hair, 80s-style costumes and nicely manicured nails, Katz’ portrayal of a “trailer trash” housewife was entertaining and demeaning at the same time. With her general laissez faire approach to the portrayal, Katz accurately caught the essence of the character.
Hillary Brainerd was delightful in the role of Dottie Smith. Apparently brain-damaged because of her mother’s attempt to kill her when she was young, Dottie brought a joyful exuberance to the dismal family. Brainerd deftly demonstrated her talent as she happily bounced through difficult and disturbing events with smiles, nods and an expression on her face that revealed an amusement with life. Brainerd was consistently in character throughout the evening.
Jason Leyva’s masterful portrayal of Killer Joe Cooper was the thread that bound the characters of the Smith family together although his character was a catalyst for destruction. With his greasy-smooth tone and sleazy glances, Leyva portrayed the vile character perfectly. Scene after scene, the Leyva’s action escalated the true nature of the character and Leyva rode through the role smoothly.
Killer Joe is a killer play, one that I found myself simultaneously disgusted by and laughing heartily at. It prompted several moments of wondering whether it was really okay I was enjoying the disgusting spectacle before me. It is a show not to be missed for its full-on art and artistry, however the show is definitely not suited for the young or the innocent. Stay through to the last moment -- you will not be disappointed.
L.I.P. Service at Arts Fifth Avenue
1628 5th Avenue, Ft. Worth, TX. 76104
Plays through June 7th
***NOTE: This performance is not suitable for young audiences due to strong language, nudity, simulated sexual acts and adult situations. Thursday - Saturday at 8:00pm. Tickets are $15.00.For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.jasonleyva.com or call 817-689-6461.