The Empty Space Theatre ends May 19
IN A TRAILER PARK somewhere in Texas, down-on-his-luck Chris (Matt Ford), owing money to some nefarious locals, decides to bump off his estranged mother to collect on her insurance policy. With the casual agreement of his father Ansel (Ian Bell), he calls on the assistance of Joe (Kelly Boulware), an enigmatic assassin, and hesitantly whores off his virginal, vacuous sister (Jen Taylor) as collateral. If you need to be told that all does not go according to plan, you'd better get out of the way of the howling, bloody, and oddly irresistible payoff of Killer Joe at The Empty Space.
Playwright Tracy Letts has a chauvinist mean streak (most of it launched at Sharla, the ball-busting stepmother channeled by Shelley Reynolds), but his language is considered enough to keep the play from sinking into a swamp of misanthropy. He has a sympathetically raffish way of getting an honest laugh ("Nuthin's worse than regrets," Chris sighs. "Not cancer. Not being eaten by a shark. Nuthin',"), and though I wouldn't say he accords these people dignity, he does, at least, see them as real.
So does everyone else involved. The show is ingenuous right down to the details in Peggy McDonald's terrific trailer set. Director M. Burke Walker keeps the action propelled by a desperate humanity; you won't hear a smug twang in the entire excellent ensemble. He has Boulware's viciousness on simmer for too long, but by the second act every measured bit of silence is deliciously unnerving.
By evening's end, you may be surprised at the lighthearted release you feel, considering that Letts' nasty little play has just socked you in the gut.
The Master and Margarita
theater simple ends May 5
I DON'T THINK I'm the only dimwit who hashed my way through The Master and Margarita itching for a quick Cliff's Notes cheat. As a frenzied adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's political fantasia, this lengthy production can get a bit thick for numbskulls like me who haven't yet been smitten with early-20th-century Russian literature—though I hate to admit it because the thing is mostly marvelous. Mostly.
Suffice to say that the style of theater simple—multiple, squinty-eyed character turns, arch humor, and a kind of ornamented pantomime—can be self-conscious enough to capitalize both the 't' and the 's' in the company's supposedly lowercase ambitions. That's just me, I know, but there you have it, and now we can get on to the good stuff.
Poet Ivan (James Cowan) and a "master" novelist (Andrew Litzky) pay the price for their passionate outspokenness, relating their woes to each other in the confines of an asylum, while Satan (Monique Kleinhans) attempts to sell out Mother Russia. Director Rachel Katz Carey engineers her timepiece back and forward and even to the side, using screens and shadow and a beautifully polished simplicity. The novelist's past affair with his radiant muse Margarita (Amy Augustine) is swirled into a dizzying m鬡nge with his imprisoned present, as is an enactment of his dangerous literary triumph, a frank rethinking of the relationship between Pontius Pilate (Llysa Holland) and Jesus, or Yeshua (Litzky again). It's a lot to take in—truth vs. history, Art vs. power, etc., etc.—but the journey is so ingeniously handled (and Litzky and Augustine are both quite good) that you willingly deal with the bumps.