Coal Mine Theatre Slays With Killer Joe (Sewer Lid, 2016)
When presented with people who live in a vacuum, the prudent thing is to determine just how far their limited worldviews extend. In the case of the characters in Tracy Letts’ 1993 debut, Killer Joe — adapted for the screen in 2011 and starring Matthew Mcconaughey — the answer is not very far. But that’s exactly the point.
The play follows the Smiths — a working class family from Dallas — after Chris (Matthew Gouveia) convinces his father Ansel (Paul Fauteux) to have Chris’ mother murdered for the insurance money. Ansel’s daughter Dottie (Vivien Endicott-Douglas) and current wife Sharla (Madison Walsh) soon catch on and implicate themselves. The family hires local cop Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew Edison) to carry out the job.
Though technically a dark comedy, this production of Killer Joe shares more with a documentary as the Smiths are dead ringers for Donald Trump supporters. Coal Mine’s Artistic Curator, Ted Dykstra, said it himself minutes after curtain call on opening night, “If you were wondering who’s going to be voting for him, now you know.” The audience laughed. He said he wished it wasn’t that funny.
In our defense, most of the play’s jokes manage to be hilarious and incite laughter as a defense mechanism or release valve against human suffering. When Chris says of his mother, “I hate that bitch,” and Ansel responds with a child’s earnest selfishness, “You’re talking about my ex-wife. I’m the one who found her, ” the infantilization is just as funny as the need to laugh off how they’re talking about murdering someone. When Ansel and Dottie enter a vegetative stage at the sight of a television with the instantaneity of a two-year-old, it smothers us with our own screen dependencies like shit in a dog’s face.
This is In Yer Face theatre, after all, where too-close-for-comfort is the preferred method of ingestion. Set inside the Smith family trailer, the audience is seated so close that the front row’s feet rest on the living room carpet. Jagged lines in the dirt under the dining room table suggest a recent scuffle. The bathroom patrons use (before showtime only!) is the same one the Smiths call their own. Without the distance of a news sound bite’s brevity, intrusion is something to get used to. The payoff, you’ll find, is worth it.
Killer Joe takes the radical humanist stance of affixing a domestic, sociological lens onto North American politics by getting to know the people threatening to make it great again. The characters’ egoism can feel like five plays simultaneously unfolding. Misogyny is doled out with the poise of inherited wisdom. Genuine care is a rarity; glimpses of it surfacing are perverse in their renewal of faith in people only to tear it down moments later. Amidst the gunshots and blood splatter, a simple “You alright, guy?” or affording someone the privilege of changing clothes never carried such incredible weight.
The characters’ generally hammed-up interaction, paired with the gruesome subject matter, makes them neither wholly realistic nor paper-thin assemblages from sitcoms, christianity and conservative politics, but an uncanny mix of both. They project theatrical versions of the happy-murder-song gimmick of Guns N’ Roses’ “Used to Love Her,” which might see them dismissed as stereotypes, stock realist takes on Married with Children without the softening veneer of make-believe. But stereotypes are exactly what they’re supposed to be. Plenty of Trump rally footage confirms the resemblance.
Smart production choices help focus the discrimination and dysfunction as indicative of a voice seldom heard. Cutting the sound on Joe and Dottie as she slips into a black dress doesn’t belittle sexual abuse, it displays it for us in horrifying phenomenological suspension, it gives room to get past our moral filters into a place of empathy. Killer Joe may have passed judgement on the Smiths in 1993, made fun of their backwards ideology in the interest of preventing it. Not anymore, though. Irony has long overstayed its welcome as weapon of choice.
Endicott-Douglas plays Dottie as a vessel, a medium who doesn’t know what she’s transmitting or who it’s for. It’s hard to tell whether she’s conscious or sleepwalking, innocent or underestimated, and we’re left with nothing but textures to read her. The result is a hallucinating angel. There’s this blissed-out, clown-smile trance she falls into at the dinner table, roughly two-thirds through, that might be your new visual cue for evil.
Gouveia brings the slime in buckets and never relents; yet he gets across by meaning well. Chris’ passionate, misguided drive toward self-improvement over mere money is endearing, a light with faint traces of purity. He salvages our hope in people by guarding his love for Dottie and comes off noble for it, a commendable mark to hit for someone who wants to kill to finance his deadbeat lifestyle.
Edison is graceful and understated in keeping Killer Joe as small of a person as he can muster. His deadpan charm grows suspicious, robotic, into a way of overcompensating for a history we’re left to imagine.
Paul Fauteux’s comic timing is sharp as a switchblade. How he empties Ansel’s conscience to the lowest possible level of sentience while killing every punchline is almost computer generated. How he caresses that Budweiser and remote control exposes displaced love like a hockey player tweeting an injury. The warp speed with which his selfishness stops being cartoony draws the audience in by inertia.
Madison Walsh just is Sharla. The script asks a great deal of her and all she does is flex.
Years from now, this production should be remembered as a period piece, unabashedly of its time, all up in the chaos of history being written.
Review: Homewrecker (Coyote Collective/Leroy Street Theatre/Scapegoat Collective) (Mooney on Theatre, 2018)
If a play’s purpose is to offer a take on a specific subject, I’m expecting a nuanced perspective to run through its core, and that is certainly the case with Homewrecker.
Currently running at The Assembly Theatre, the story centres on a cheating, self-loathing divorcee named Craig (Blue Bigwood-Mallin) eager to figure out where he went wrong, and Veronica (Susannah Mackay), the woman he cheated with, whose steely resolve he needs to put himself back together. Craig’s basement apartment—uncanny in its execution by set designer Chris Bretecher—sets a believable backdrop for the play’s extravagant central conceit: Craig’s $5000 offer to Veronica for a night’s company to prove to himself that he’s able to avoid seducing her again and is thus not the deviant sexual animal he thinks he is.
Playwright Daniel Pagett deftly uses Craig’s offer as a springboard to probe the tenuous nature of trust, the fictions that sustain us, and the complexities of loving someone you don’t like, all through a handful of jaw-dropping twists that continually replenish the play with fresh life. As the self-ruminations deepen and the conversations grow increasingly heated, the actors’ supercharged performances make it enjoyably difficult to distrust anything they say.
With the help of loaded, stylized blocking from director Anne Van Leeuwen, Pagett teases out buried feelings through images and ideas that are unrelenting in their humor and specificity. He is a poet with the gift of wit and bestows his characters with a strong sense of emotional awareness such that they are able to laugh at their problems. Pagett has fun with Craig and Veronica’s deep-seated sense of vulnerability as weakness and indulges in it without reservation. He acknowledges the audience’s presence by continually pulling the rug from under their sense of his characters’ identities.
Bigwood-Mallin layers Craig with hardness and world-weariness as the play progresses, such that the self-conscious mope we meet at the beginning feels like a limited facet of the conniving man we meet later on. His emotional range and control made me flip-flop on my feelings about him at least three times and appreciate how easily an embodied performance can sway. This is riveting stuff.
The same goes for Mackay, whose performance is authoritative and dialed-in to what’s happening in front of her, as if there were nothing else going on in the world. Veronica’s focus is that of someone possessed by the fortuitousness of the situation she finds herself in. She is the perfect sassy foil to Craig’s uncertain sulk, exuding the kind of piercing confidence he is looking to integrate into his newfound singledom.
The connection between these two is magnetic from the start, feeding off each other’s energy to imbue Pagett’s rapid-fire dialogue with explosively felt authenticity. They are masters of transformation, going from guarded strangers to confidants and back with a commitment that feels like close-up magic in the venue’s cozy space.
The plot twists were by far the highlight for my guest, Erika, who found them to be high stakes without interrupting the narrative flow. In spite of adultery being familiar dramatic territory, she says, the play takes a common story and elevates it into a tantalizing entertainment and immersive character study. One that lays out rather thoroughly the many ways in which we try and fail to control who we love.
Homewrecker is on all my counts a superb piece of theatre that should not be slept on. The combination of a script with conceptual rigour where every line is considered and performers willing to suffer through their characters’ growth makes for a captivating night out to say the least.
Spoken Word Takes a Turn for the Outrageous (Torontoist, 2014)
How a new poetry series is turning heads and making friends by breaking all the rules.
Inaugurated last November at The Central, Outrageous has become Toronto’s outlaw spoken word series. The monthly sampling of poetry and song—open to anyone who’s wrestled with language for their art—features artists who don’t care for tradition or political correctness. It’s a mishmash of cultures, media, and styles, in which slam poets follow sound poets, free-jazz improv duos follow singer-songwriters, and the occasional ventriloquist or Slavoj Žižek impressionist makes an appearance. Together the artists form a community modelled after an aboriginal concept known as “the circle”—everyone who attends an event and steps into the Outrageous circle is expected to get along irrespective of conflicting artistic or moral stances.
Host and series creator Elizabeth Burns conceived of Outrageous as a space in which art could be anything anybody wanted it to be. She had become disillusioned by arbitrary standards of good and bad art, and with the notion that art history is strictly progressional—a straight line headed toward perfection. She wanted to strip these away so that everybody could be more comfortable: the performers could say exactly what they want, drawing from any artist they want, and the audience wouldn’t judge them for it. Burns and her team—co-host James Ryan Gobuty, photographer Glenn Pritchard, and marketer Theresa Burns—achieve this in two ways. One, they keep Outrageous a free show so that its value as an experience isn’t predetermined by whatever it means to give people their money’s worth. Two, they keep the show playful, making fun of themselves, the audience, and the upward mobility spoken word series are expected to foster. In so doing, they distance Outrageous from narrow definitions of what art should be.
Outrageous’s lawlessness is most evident in Burns’s brash stage presence and feigned indifference as host—you may find yourself simultaneously insulted and delighted. She’ll thank the audience for coming and say how sick she is of hosting in the same breath. If the audience won’t quiet down, she’ll silence them with dick jokes and expletives. She is a constant thorn in her performers’ pride: in the middle of jazz duo Lottery Tickets’ set at Outrageous VII she asked if they could play some music. Before conceptual artist Miles Forrester read at Outrageous VIII, she noticed he was wearing cut-off jean shorts and asked the audience to stare at his legs as he walked on stage. “As much as the show has made an overwhelming amount of strangers feel comfortable,” Burns says of her crass hosting style, “it has been successful because it has made people uncomfortable. I want to know that you’re actively using your mind here—that you are feeling something. And maybe if it sucks you’ll be inspired enough to find a better experience elsewhere, or to make your own.”
By the end of Outrageous VII, the only instalment held at Habits Gastropub, the manager banned Burns and her comrades because diners were put off by the vulgarity onstage. Highlights included guitarist Yoav Gurevich simulating orgasm by guitar solo, and Lottery Tickets vocalist Alex Hood ripping his shirt off with Gobuty’s help and threatening to kill Burns for her heckling (about two-thirds of the way through the video below—unsurprisingly, heckling is something of an Outrageous staple). At Outrageous VIII, Burns, who frequently asks male performers why they haven’t taken their shirts off, led by example and removed her own. The night also saw Burns introduce poet J.C. Bouchard with a moving story about how the two of them, along with Bouchard’s young daughters, spent a relaxing afternoon at the park (Bouchard later revealed that he doesn’t have children). At Outrageous IX, when Bouchard returned to the stage for the open mic portion of the show, Burns and Gobuty tried to undress him while he read. His struggle to keep his rhythm (and a straight face) as Burns’s disembodied hand went for the next button on his shirt contributed to the show’s typically irreverent tone.
Outrageous employs an atypical curatorial process for choosing artists. “When selecting features, I don’t ask for examples of work,” Burns says, “and I really don’t want to hear a long list of poetic achievements. I just want to know you’re interested and that you promise me at least one piece you feel you couldn’t perform anywhere else. I can confidently say it’s worked out far beyond well. The idea is to do, say, think, and feel things that aren’t outright accepted at other places. [Outrageous] is the show for everyone, regardless of their tastes.”
At Outrageous the performance environment isn’t competitive. Those who abide by the constraints of form and subject matter that come with trying to crack the CanLit canon are welcome because their work is antithetical to the uncensored, unapologetic fare Outrageous offers. Oneupmanship is pointless when there’s no hierarchy to ascend and the goal of the show—to bring together disparate forms of creative expression—has already been achieved. The only measure of a work’s success is how well it’s received by a crowd as diverse as the city itself.
“If there wasn’t an authority on ‘good art,’” Burns says, “there would be no Outrageous.”
Charlotte Cardin’s Big Boy (Under the Deer, 2018)
The Montreal singer and multi-instrumentalist, Charlotte Cardin, is my choice for the most interesting, most promising artist to emerge from a Canadian singing competition since Hedley started ruling the airwaves and Carly Rae Jepsen—who placed third on Canadian Idol in 2007—turned into a leading 1980’s pop revivalist.
After placing fourth on the first season of La Voix—the French-Canadian version of The Voice—in 2013, Cardin took the next three years to develop a style as eclectic and personal as it is accessible to mainstream listeners. On her debut E.P., Big Boy, this means upcycling pop music’s standard verse-chorus-verse song structure into a canvas for some of her strongest traits: confessional songwriting, nuanced vocals, and minimalist instrumentals that blend elements of jazz, electro, hip-hop, and R&B into grooves that’ll bob your head until it swims.
Cardin offers six songs that explore the end of love to a systematic degree, changing relationship scenarios in every song, and inhabiting the speakers with a gonzo-level of commitment that allows all of their edges to show. She is distinctive in her enunciation for being able to find new ways to bend words in the service of mood. In this way, she’s a jazz improviser, elevating Big Boy into catharsis, making words you use on a daily basis emote as you didn’t know they could.
The eponymous opening track is sultry R&B number directed at a lover who doesn’t want to take things any further than an initial tryst. Cardin delivers it with a taunting, playful tone, poking at the beloved’s lack of resolve, but also filling it with desire that betrays feelings yet to dissipate. All this is punctuated by some cascading hi-hats that back her up by being a total tease for the hypothetical recipient. She croons,
My boy is not a man yet
But boy, do I love it when you kiss my neck.
It’s the mania at having to sit with unreciprocated desire that she pulls off so well. She sounds like she is of two minds, wanting to give all of herself to the beloved but also to simultaneously take it away. The music reflects this division, the piano work awash in heavy brooding while the drums dance around her words like a devil on the shoulder.
A split mind becomes a major theme of the album and a major source of its humanity. Cardin’s protagonists aren’t afraid to express contraction amidst the anger and paranoia of their newfound solitude. We are listening to songs about people who were adored, who became integral parts of the speakers’ lives, and whose absences could entail nothing but apocalypse. There is something crushingly relatable about finding yourself to not be enough for someone and Cardin is continually tapped into it.
This is so on the single, “Like It Doesn’t Hurt” featuring Nate Husser, an electro-tinged banger that gets at the walls we put up with people who step unceremoniously out of our lives. Cardin is steely in her portrayal of the ache for a former lover whose embrace lingers like a phantom limb. Her cognitive dissonance is mirrored nicely in the lazy, pulsating synths and the dainty drum patterns they radiate from.
I’ve been around
Your body upside down,
But I can’t touch you,
In any fucking way.
She repeats this hook as if entranced by the false promises of longevity these moments of intimacy can contain. They feel too good to consider them never happening again, as opposed to their inevitably finite natures intensifying the experiences themselves.
Cardin has chemistry with Husser, who plays the lover, and whose rhymes are tightly woven with fragility hip-hop sorely lacks. The song is a picture of the unrefined anger of holding it against someone for letting their window to love you pass on by. As such, it is a moving take on the state of feeling like an open wound.
The third track, the headbanging “Dirty Dirty”, is perhaps Cardin’s greatest performance in terms of translating the ambiguity and instability of the recently dumped. She plays someone whose lover has left her for being too young, and really sharpens her tongue to convey the cosmic irony of the world withholding someone from you for being yourself.
So I can cry for my age, my life, and my face,
And I can cry ‘cause I got so much she has not
And I will wash off all the dirty, dirty thoughts I had about you.
Her words consume the boom-bap inspired beat, piling on the outrage and existential despair over handclaps that lend an arena-rock quality to the proceedings. There is a tone of entitlement that runs through the song—in that the speaker believes she deserves the relationship—that captures a universal reaction to loss with understated grace.
“Talk Talk” is an atmospheric song about sleeping with someone in your social circle and having to deal with the rumors of everyone else finding out. Continuing the trend of production mirroring subject matter, the uncertainty of the keys and drums is matched by the speaker’s declining confidence in how she is being perceived. All three trip about, on the brink of falling apart, only to implode in a visceral finale befitting the betrayal.
Cardin gives repetition a higher-order purpose here, one that turns one of pop music’s more tedious traits into a sound literary decision; namely, mimicking the obsessive dwelling that can come from being vulnerable with another person and having it blow up in your face. She creates a palpable sense of unease by returning to the shit they talk as one might poke at a sore tooth with one’s tongue, or slow down during an accident in the other lane. There is a devastating rawness to the track that comes from her openness to being a conduit for anxiety.
The two closers round off the album with an objective change in perspective. Cardin reflects on the ephemerality of love in “Les Echardes” and on the inescapability of memory in “Faufile”. Both are tender piano ballads in which she takes her emotive powers even further—French being her mother tongue—increasing the subtleties of her voice for an enjoyably more complex listen. She positions these tracks as meditations on the previous four, surveying them from the vantage point of experience, where their failures of attraction are not the catastrophes they once seemed but byproducts of wanting to get outside of herself through the hearts of others. The closers’ restrained arrangements contrast with the first four tracks’ vibrant rhythms like maturity and the experiences it comes from.
In sum, Big Boy is a concept album about unattainable love that speaks to your guts, with a singer at the helm who is unafraid to delve into the less flattering sides of desire with deeply felt fidelity. It offers beauty made from hardship, giving the work the potential to help people feel less alone about who they’ve committed to. That makes the album good literature, living laid bare, its mechanisms brought into relief for those who need to brush up on reality while they put on headphones to take a break from it.