Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Fight club

Maryland Ensemble brawls bare-knuckled (and everything else) in ‘Killer Joe’

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Tom Fedor⁄The Gazette
Denny Grizzle (left) as Killer Joe and Matt Baughman as Chris.
The Maryland Ensemble Theatre drummed up plenty of cheer and glad tidings with ‘‘A Christmas Carol” throughout the holiday season.

They just had to do something to shake it off.

Enter ‘‘Killer Joe,” playwright Tracy Letts’ blacker-than-coal comedy involving twisted turn-of-events, hired thugs, greed and gruesome violence.

The depravity kicks off as Chris (Matt Baughman) — in deep with some bad, bad men —plots to kill his mother and nab her insurance, of which his sister Dottie (Amy Easton) is the benefactor.

Scheming with his ne’er do well father, Ansel (Tad Janes), and stepmother Sharla (Julie Herber), Chris hires the titular hitman for the job. Except mom’s policy doesn’t quite do the trick, and soon Killer Joe (Denny Grizzle) is seeking a new form of payment.

‘‘Yes, it’s another trailer trash classic from the Maryland Ensemble,” joked director Gené Fouché.

‘‘It’s not a laugh riot comedy,” she said. ‘‘It’s very, very dark in humor. It’s also a love story in a weird, twisted sort of way. And it’s exciting.”

Tonally, Letts’ play shares a great deal in common with the works of company favorite Sam Shepard, said Fouché, while still maintaining a one-of-a-kind quality that proved an immediate hit with ensemble members.

‘‘Tracy Letts was a Steppenwolf guy, and an actor, too,” Fouché said. ‘‘There’s really nothing like it in theater today.”

Theater artistic director Janes heartily agrees.

‘‘It’s a great script,” he said. ‘‘It grabs you by the throat. It’s intense and funny at the same time. And I like shows where the humor arises from the tension.”

Sometimes, though, black eyes and broken ribs arise from tension.

With its bone-crushing brawls, the production provides the company with an opportunity to dust off its stage combat skills.

‘‘Every time we do it, I’m sure someone got hurt,” said Fouché.

It’s nerve-wracking, but those duking it out onstage, she notes, are professionals and well versed in the art. There’s a science to it —a process.

‘‘If you deconstruct an actual fight — things happen so fast you can’t make them out. We’ve slowed things down so you can see each punch or kick. Every step and movement has been choreographed and we’ve gone over and over them again and again.”

The scrapes are slowed down, she said, and then incrementally sped up with each run-through.

There is even a ‘‘fight captain” — in this case, Easton — who runs a fight call prior to each performance, making note of what swings, jabs and kicks may need finessed.

So far, said Fouché, there have been no TKOs reported. ‘‘Knock on wood.”

‘‘Our fight director Andrew Pecoraro is amazing,” she said. ‘‘He’s made things 100 percent more exciting than I had envisioned.”

While the threat of physical, albeit accidental, bodily harm may have been an adjustment, the nudity in ‘‘Killer Joe” was certainly a first for the Maryland Ensemble and for the actors involved.

‘‘We haven’t tried to shy away from it, really,” said Janes. ‘‘It’s just that the plays we’ve done have not called for it [until now].”

The overwhelming support and love for the script, he said, ultimately outweighed initial wariness, which, according to Fouché, was definitely present.

‘‘It was a little controversial for us, too” she said. ‘‘We’re all teachers in the community. So we had to really take a look at that and see if it was something we were comfortable with.”

The key, she said, was establishing a comfort level.

‘‘None of the actors had ever done this before, so there was a learning curve. And it was about making a safe environment where that can happen,” she said. ‘‘Our puritan roots tell us we need to be modest. I tried to make things as tasteful as possible.”

That meant modification, in part — like placing characters behind set pieces to limit their exposure time.

‘‘When you’re working in such a small space, that distance is kind of needed,” she said. ‘‘Maybe five years from now, I wouldn’t be saying that. But [it was necessary] for our first venture into the unknown.”

It helped that the ensemble assembled for ‘‘Killer Joe” was a tight knit family unit to begin with.

‘‘It made it very easy for me as a director,” said Fouché. ‘‘I didn’t have to work on the relationships, because they were already there.”

‘‘I hesitate to say this, because I don’t want to jinx it — but I would say we’re farther ahead than we’ve ever been at this point. And for this show, especially, that’s a plus,” Fouché continued. ‘‘This is a very difficult play to open. But everyone is 100 percent confident in what they’re doing, which makes it much easier.”

What remains is how the audience will take to the Maryland Ensemble’s latest push to the envelope.

‘‘We’re not trying to trick anyone,” said Janes. ‘‘We tell everyone who sits in the front row, ‘Remember, there’s nudity and violence.’ But it’s like one of our older members said, ‘Listen, I’m 80. I’ve seen everything.’ Our audience likes to be challenged. So we’re really not stepping out of the box that way.”

Fouché agrees.

‘‘I would like to think Frederick is ready for something like this,” she said. ‘‘It’s our job as artists to kind of see how far we can go. I don’t know that we’d go much further than this ... But we have to take risks, or we’d become bored.”

‘Killer Joe’

For adult audiences: Violence, language, nudity

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through March 8; 8 p.m. Feb. 28, March 6; 2 p.m. Feb. 24 and March 2

Where: Maryland Ensemble Theatre, 31 W. Patrick St., Frederick

Tickets: $22 for adults, $19 for students and seniors

For information: