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at Chicago Filmmakers, through August 28

I couldn't imagine a more unlikely multimedia performance collaboration than one between brash performance artist Paula Killen, refined actress-violinist Miriam Sturm, and intellectual filmmaker Katy Maguire. But here it is, framed by Mary Brogger's beautifully spare and elegant set, and it turns out to be a wonderful idea. The text, written and performed by Killen, speaks of three disparate women's lives merged through friendship, examined not through a magnifying glass but through the sentimental, myopic, at times silly story-telling style of Killen's character, Mona. Though the story flags at times, Friends With Fire Arms: A Farewell to Feminism is an entertaining evening.

Maguire's films, which usually alternate with Killen's performance but sometimes run simultaneously, are a wonderful addition, acting almost as a visual percussion line to the story. Especially successful is a short film in which a child or children are beseeching their mother to get up and make breakfast: while we see an adult's hand toasting and serving a frozen waffle, we hear on the sound track a child's cries repeated and magnified into a deafening cacophony. Sturm's ethereal and stunning presence--she's onstage and playing throughout--and her compositions and performance lend the show weight and beauty. This piece, billed as a work in progress, has great potential, provided the story is tightened up and Killen finds some silent places within her monologue. Particularly brilliant is Killen's understanding of the insidious power of popular culture's concept of feminist, emancipated women of the 70s, seen in Playboy and television shows like Charlie's Angels.

Interestingly, Mona was educated not in college but by reading other people's mail as a clerk in the college mail room. This seems almost a metaphor for the way Killen herself develops her monologues, which are bits and pieces of many lives, many characters, juxtaposed to create a whole. In this postmodern era many performance artists appropriate and collage concepts and images from other media and from popular culture. Appropriation is certainly evident in Killen's work, but mainly of a general filmic sort. Because her strokes are so broad, and because she has so often given her characters in other shows the qualities of a world-weary, much-burned woman of another era, one cannot always ferret out the true or the real. Her young audience, however, gobbles it up eagerly. Lines that made me smile produced belly laughs in those around me.

Killen is a difficult performer and writer to analyze. Reminiscent of Betty Hutton, she's high-wattage: her style of delivery crackles and blinds. Blessed with an arresting, strangely beautiful face, she seems a femme fatale from another era, bigger than life, and often bigger than the spaces in which she's performed. I've seen her in a variety of shows in the last few years, but my favorite works are those in which she eliminates all artifice, as she did in her wonderful monologue in the last Big Goddess Pow-Wow (accompanied then also by Sturm) and as she did in her little-known 1991 gem at N.A.M.E., Loose Cannon: she was wonderful and moving in this uncharacteristically strange, cynical piece about a young woman edged out of her job and a yuppie life-style.

Killen--all robust primary colors and broad strokes exhibited with verve--fairly screams for attention. Fine shadings of emotion, nuances of motivation, rarely emerge in her monologues; rather we get an entertaining, often tragicomic story told in a hurry that holds our attention because Killen's personality is so powerful. Perhaps she, like Noel Coward, is "born to amuse"--though it's presumptuous of any critic to make such an assumption, especially about an artist who's still in her early 30s. And I don't think her intention is merely to amuse, in part because I've seen her create work of great, almost transcendent emotional power.

Killen has an established audience here in Chicago who would give their blessing to almost anything she did, and perhaps this is the difficulty for her as an artist: such adulation can effectively stifle any attempts to mine the serious, the subtle, and the true. Though the entertainment and production values of this show are firmly in place, one hopes Killen will now plumb her story's subtleties, finding the "space between" monologue and intention, allowing the audience to experience the deeper roots of emotion.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carolyn Macartney.

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