An old guy, weather-beaten and apparently homeless, trundling past with a dolly, idles for a second to listen. His face pinches up. "Don't go in there," he says.
But I do.
Inside it's nasty. Rusty Sneary, a local tough in wicked-tipped cowboy boots, is kicking the holy hell out of Stephen Mitsch. Corrie Van Ausdal wails until she takes a couple of boots herself and crumples to the concrete. A head cracks into a television a cinderblock-tough '70s model the size of a lawn mower. Mitsch winds up being slammed face-first into a refrigerator while Sneary whales on him.
"Die!" Sneary shouts.
And so forth, until Killer Joe director Scott Cordes and the fight choreographer, who charges $75 an hour, are pleased.
Violence isn't the trickiest thing about Killer Joe, that rare show that generates enough excitement to make me want to explore it before opening night. The play premieres September 8 at Just Off Broadway.
Financing the project was tough because this is an orphan production, unaffiliated with any of the professional companies in town.
Even orphans can have pedigrees, though.
Cordes has directed a couple of American Heartland shows; as an actor, he most recently stole the Unicorn's The Exonerated. Producer Tyler Miller's a Swiss Army guy: techie, actor, raconteur. With Gorilla Theatre he takes the stage to the street; as a founding board member of Just Off Broadway, he helps ensure homeless troupes access to a solid performance space, and he now plans to improve the facilities not only for his show but also for those coming next. Killer Joe plays rough and makes a hell of a mess, but it tries to leave the place nicer than it found it.
The show is written by Tracy Letts, an explorer of how lives on the fringe can become lives aflame. (His Bug! almost burned down the Unicorn this spring.) Letts' work is tough-minded, darkly funny and often violent. It's also sociologically astute, demonstrating real attention to the hardscrabble ways people do or, by final curtain, don't get by.
Miller calls Letts' plays "[Sam] Shepherd on steroids" and says that he and Cordes kicked around the idea of staging a Letts show on their own, aiming for what Miller describes as "the Equity standard" without the backing of an established company. Miller would act, produce and ultimately pony up a chunk of capital. Old stagehands both, they knew what jobs they could handle and who they could get for everything else. People fell in quickly: a sound designer from the Folly, costume and set pros from the crew at the KC Repertory Theatre.
The tech stuff has been a challenge not just the lights and sound but also building a live-in trailer for actors to go mad in. Another challenge: not losing the humanity in all this doublewide mayhem, ensuring that the actors not play Letts' characters as cracker sumbitches (as they might under direction that is less cleareyed than Cordes', who is proud to hail from Nebraska dirt).
The bits being rehearsed this night are the play's most shocking. Brutal as they are, Miller assures me that they're all rooted in real characters.
Sneary: "Is it better if I turn first and then kick her?"
It is. They mime through it again in slow motion. Sneary is stripped-down in a white tank top. In action, he's erratic, agitated, not a little frightening; as soon as he falls out of scene, he's precise and attentive, discussing the logistics of abuse in the calm way that a Bishop Miege student might talk about hitting the stations of the cross.
Again with the brawl, until it crunches. Finally Cordes is satisfied.
"What now?" someone asks.
Everyone agrees: the chicken rape scene, whatever that is.
"All right," Cordes says. "Take it from Joe grabbing her throat for the first time."
Van Ausdal rises, dusts herself off, smiles hugely, and positions herself for more.
Throughout the rehearsal, good-looking people continue to beat each other up.
Now Sneary's got Van Ausdal on her knees, her mouth at his crotch. Even for the grande dame of Late Night Theatre, this is a bit much, and she'll admit, if you ask her, that night after night this can wear a girl out.
"Suck it!" Sneary shouts. Lately, Sneary's always being called upon to play the heavy, often a poor, rural one. He's looking forward to this year's production of A Christmas Carol so he'll be able to invite his mother to one of his shows. But it's easy to see why he earned the part of Killer Joe: He can swagger; he looks so cool smoking, you hope kids never see him; and while playing an asshole, he's still pretty charming. Maybe most important is that as he showed in The Exonerated, where he embodied a parade of corrupt Southern cops his assholes don't know they're assholes.
At least, not at play's start.
"You want me to wear your face?" Sneary yells.
Van Ausdal pretends to take him into her mouth.
"Suck it," an assistant prompts.
"Suck it!" shouts Sneary.
A teary Van Ausdal playacts going down.
It almost hurts to watch.
But it may hurt more not to. Miller lives theater because, he says (citing David Luby), in its combination of light, sound and live performance, theater is a rare "human art form," an experience impossible for an audience to relive through recorded media. "It imprints emotion on them [an audience], and what they walk away with is a memory," he says.
"People need to see something live before it's dead."