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THEATER REVIEW ‌ Killer Joe

Summer of Slam: PURE Theatre prepares a killer show and looks for new digs

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Killer Joe
July 20, 21, 26-28, Aug. 2-4 at 7.30 p.m. $25-$27 PURE Theatre
The Cigar Factory, 701 East Bay St.723-4444 or www.puretheatre.org

After a season brimming with high-quality contemporary shows, it would be understandable if PURE Theatre took a break until the fall. Instead, the bleeding-edge company is packing an extra play into its lineup before it begins its fifth season.

Usually, PURE focuses on plays that are new or unfamiliar to Charleston audiences. Their annual Summer Slam window typically showcases work that doesn't fit this mold. Killer Joe, by Steppenwolf actor and playwright (Bug, Man from Nebraska) Tracy Letts, has had time to ferment and gain a following.

Among its appreciators is director R.W. Smith. He enjoys the raw energy of the play, which is packed with violence, humor, and shocking white trash behavior; it's a grind-up of grit and tawdriness that's being billed as a "black and blue comedy."

It all takes place in a trailer home in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, where the emotionally-bruised Smith family want to bump off a relative with the help of Joe Cooper, a detective who moonlights as a murderer-for-hire. They can't afford his services, but he takes a shine to the family's virginal daughter Dottie. With the girl as a down payment, Joe moves in for the kill.

"Some [audience members] will separate themselves from the Smiths because these characters are poor," the director believes. "But it's amazing, people will turn to violence whatever their status." While they're somewhat dirty and despicable, R.W. Smith says, "they are loveable. They're searching for the same things we all are."

Yet the Summer Slam production presents a different kind of soul-searching from PURE's next show, Conor McPherson's Shining City. That's a subtle, character-studying contrast to Joe's explosive piece of theatre.

"We want to take something that's in-your-face and put it more in-your-face," says the director. "I almost think of a play like this as an intense rock 'n' roll show — I want audiences to feel as if they've seen something and leave it saying, 'Wow! That was an experience.'"

"It's a wild, crazy show," says Rodney Lee Rogers, PURE's co-founder. "It doesn't fit any category." Rogers won't be appearing in Joe, building sets or running the technical tasks that usually make up almost 60 percent of his workload. Smith has been hired as long-term company manager, allowing Rogers to concentrate on writing, acting (he'll star in the self-penned Diary of a Madman in 2008), and non-PURE projects.

"I'm actually taking on more of what Sharon Graci was doing," says Smith. According to him, that will enable Graci, the co-founder and artistic director of the company, to spend more time on fundraising.

"We always knew how to produce," says Graci, "and we learned over the years how to raise money and write grants." The PURE founders are right where they want to be with their "nonprofit stuff," balancing private and grant funding with box office income. The next step is to find a new venue for the company. With the Cigar Factory's new owners planning a condofication of the historic three-story brick structure on East Bay Street, PURE will be forced out of their home in October.

Rogers sees a positive side to the move. For him, there's an artistic danger of getting stuck in a space and being creatively hampered by the same old four walls. PURE has done a lot with its blackbox venue, doing shows in the round or moving its audience from one side to another depending on the kind of show they're doing. But a traveling show or a new venue could give the company a chance to try new things.

Charleston has long had a couple of established "traveling" theatre companies — Actors' Theatre of South Carolina and Art Forms and Theatre Concepts — that don't have a permanent venue. These groups have found that they need a strong focus on marketing to maintain their audience base. Rogers and Graci admit that marketing isn't their strongest suit; they rely heavily on word of mouth to build up interest in their shows during a run. They see the Summer Slam as a good chance to test new marketing ideas before the new season kicks in.

Smith is also looking forward to the opportunity to create theatre in different places. If all goes well, he says, the company will be able to make an announcement soon. Otherwise, we know a little trailer park in Texas with cheap space for rent.

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