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Helbig's Hate Mail

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I experienced my usual irritation with Jack Helbig to an unusual degree while reading his attack on Paula Killen, "State of Denial" [February 4]. Once again Helbig misses the point. The half of the "review" that purports to examine Killen's piece "The State I'm In" is obtuse. The half that slams Killen's press exposure is shortsighted.

Apparently, Helbig saw a different show than the rest of us. He claims Killen's character, Rose (not ever "Texas Rose"), "Never seems to learn or grow." Yet the story line clearly traces Rose's development through the open armed expectations of youth, failed first love, experiments with sexual identity, the death of a mentor, and the reintegration of self and acceptance of life without defensive fearfulness. This material is far from the "deadening sameness" of a foreign landscape that Helbig depicts as "one gray mass." Instead it shocks us into a greater self-awareness.

Helbig steals one of Rose's key insights, then suggests that she is incapable of it. He writes, "her character is trapped, compelled to play out the same doomed romantic scenario again and again. . . . This interpretation gives Killen too much credit for understanding her character's psychological predicament." Yet on Rose's second trip to hell she says, "Why do we stick with things that just don't work?" Sounds like the same point, more concisely put.

I have often noticed that a critic's review can say more about the reviewer than it does about the work. As Rose says early on, "Love letters always seem to imply more about the person who has written the letter. I am just a projection, an imagined lover." Obviously the insight applies equally well to hate mail. Helbig always has trouble with the depiction of the heart's subtleties. Whether the theme is love or loss, he never seems to get it. As he admits, he prefers "philosophical or political questions." When a piece asks that he examine himself, he gives us a review like this, "fraught with unexamined infantile impulses and unconscious desires . . ."

Which brings us to the bizarre first half of his "review" in which he blames Killen for the enthusiastic response of his peers. Whatever grandiose fantasy leads Helbig to assume he's Chicago's arbiter of taste is both misdirected and shortsighted. He fails to recognize that Killen is the first local talent to perform in the Goodman's "Solo Series" and the only person in the history of the series to sell out the house every night of the run.

The Goodman and other "establishment" theaters cannot fail to recognize that Chicago has a huge appetite for the kind of work Killen is doing. Just as Big Goddess Pow Wow opened the doors of Cabaret Metro, Killen's show will open up spaces that have previously ignored what Helbig aptly describes as "a plethora of witty, intelligent storytellers."

That's good news. If there's anything positive to be taken from this "review," it's that even women performers who didn't make Helbig's short list of worthy storytellers now have even a greater chance of being heard. Killen has proven it.

So please, "Reader" editors, next time you have the opportunity to review any of Chicago's rising women performers, don't send Mr. Helbig. He might end up at "The Texas Rose Story" playing in the lobby of his own unexamined fantasies. Thanks.

Joel Fromer

Chicago

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