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State of the Arts: Trailer park play no ordinary Joe

Site-specific production of Killer Joe staged in replica trailer park
killer joe
Staged in a replica trailer park, ITSAZOO’s production of Killer Joe includes beer, hotdogs, pink flamingos, and scenes of violence, nudity, sexuality and coarse language.

ITSAZOO is producing a play for the Tarantino set.

Instead of negotiating narrow aisles, those attending Killer Joe can sidle up to a bar in a Texas-style trailer park, down a beer and a hotdog and then take a seat among an audience of 30 who will sit two feet from scenes of violence, nudity, sexuality and coarse language.

“The outside of the trailer looks just like a trailer from the Trailer Park Boys,” said Chelsea Haberlin, ITSAZOO’s co-artistic director and director of Killer Joe. “We’ve got a couple other trailers on the lot and a few other broken down cars and we’ve got pink flamingos and Astroturf and cans of beer.”

The 30-year-old Haberlin says there’s a dearth of theatre for people more keen on immersive festivities than sitting tamely in front of a stage.

“There are a whole bunch of people out there who love theatre,” she said. “They just don’t know it yet because they haven’t seen the right play.”

Killer Joe follows a deeply dysfunctional Texas family, the Smiths. Chris, the eldest son, hires a cop-by-day/hitman-by-night, Killer Joe Cooper, to murder their mother to collect life insurance. But when Cooper takes an interest in Chris’s virginal younger sister all hell breaks loose.

The first play by Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who penned August: Osage County, Killer Joe is bigger and bolder.

“He takes really bold risks with this that someone who I think has written more plays perhaps would check themselves,” Haberlin said.

Both August: Osage County and Killer Joe focus on family turmoil with nuggets of humour amid the tragedy. “You’re kind of laughing your way through the tragedy,” Haberlin said, “which is kind of how it is in real life.”

The players, which include ITSAZOO’s co-artistic director Sebastien Archibald as Chris and Emma Slipp as the step mom, are all comedic actors first.

Haberlin studied Quentin Tarantino’s movie Pulp Fiction, rather than the 2011 movie version of Killer Joe starring Matthew McConaughey, for how Tarantino balanced the drama and humour. For the somewhat squeamish she says the black comedy falls somewhere between Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill in brutality and grisliness.  

It’s a big intrusion into the life of the Smith family that stirs up the turmoil. But it’s not the hit man’s interest in the younger sister that constitutes the intrusion; it’s the decision to hire Killer Joe.

“Killer Joe brings order, and in bringing order to this family, the chaos is exploded,” Haberlin said. “It’s a really interesting dynamic. And finding that chaos that exists amongst uneducated and people who are quite poor and who are emotionally unstable and to see what it does when you bring in a great controlling power has been really interesting for us.”

It is the second production in ITSAZOO’s Premiere Series, which presents site-specific versions of debut works by renowned playwrights. The series’ first production was 2012’s award-winning production of Jez Butterworth’s Mojo, about the kidnapping of a rock ’n’ roll heartthrob in Atlanta in 1958, which was set at Strathcona’s Russian Hall.

For Killer Joe, Haberlin advises viewer discretion. “It’s about as gruesome as you can get in theatre,” she said.

Killer Joe runs April 15 to May 4 on the parking lot of the Italian Cultural Centre, 3075 Slocan St. at Grandview Highway. Tickets at

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