In Performance: the devil and Paula Killen | Calendar | Chicago Reader

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In Performance: the devil and Paula Killen

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Paula Killen has been to hell and back.

In her new one-woman show The State I'm In: A Travelogue, it's a place where you not only get hit on by the devil but have to meet his mom, "a four-foot crone covered in gold lame from head to toe"; a place where his Flaming Red Hotness warns: "Earthly love can be a much greater hell than what you might have experienced here with me."

Killen should know. Married, divorced, hetero and maybe not, incurable romantic and fantast, damaged goods--Killen has a knack for transforming each fresh hell into a new walloping performance.

The folks at the Goodman endured the blast and saw fit to give her a run in the studio theater. This makes her the first Chicago performance artist to take that stage. About time.

"OK, it ain't your HBO special," says Killen. "But it says to other people that follow the national theater scene that hey--I'm here."

This is no news to her largely underground audiences--who have literally descended to her shows at the subterranean Smart Bar, Lower Links, the old N.A.M.E. They've followed Killen in her various guises: endearing chanteuse in Music Kills a Memory, dead yet curiously logorrheic bimbo in A Cocktail of Flowers, goddess at the Big Goddess Pow Wow, and exorcist of personal demons in Loose Cannon: Bitching to Cure the Planet.

Killen describes The State I'm In as mythic story telling with ancient roots. Traversing time and space, the show will be a literal, metaphorical, and psychological travelogue, as Killen revisits and retools old haunts and old loves in her birthplace of Los Angeles, in Seattle, and beyond. And of course in hell, which, according to Rose, Killen's alter ego in the show, is just as you might imagine: "It's a big shrine to dead rock 'n' roll stars and psycho killers. The only incongruence is that all the candles are the kind you get at Sears, with the screw-in light bulbs."

"I'm probably no different from a lot of other artists, going through ebbs and flows," says Killen, who lately has struggled with the deaths of several friends--some from AIDS and friend and mentor Jesse Bernstein from suicide.

Bernstein is memorialized in the new work: "I had my own way of remembering Jesse," says Rose. "Little boy curly hair, and endless cigarettes. Jewboy wiry body and tattoos from jail and an insane asylum and friends with artistic aspirations. Yes, legend is an easy way to describe him. I mean who else reads poetry with live rats in their mouth?"

Killen says "As transcendent and fantastical as some of the pieces get--I mean, I go to hell, I pick up hitchhikers in wheelchairs, all this crazy stuff--nothing has the whisper of a clue compared to the reality of going back west for Jesse's funeral--how it ultimately opened my life up again to experience. I had always imagined going back there successful and with all my dreams and aspirations fulfilled. But it wasn't like that at all at first. No. I went back like the pieces of a broken teacup: my divorce had happened, none of these people bad seen me since I'd left to get married and famous and together, and after hearing of Jesse's suicide I had gone on an immediate bender."

As Rose remembers: "I had brought fireworks and sparklers to the wake with me and proceeded to light them off during someone's moment of sad remembrance. I was like this evil bride making rounds at a carnival wedding."

"For the most part these days I want to wake up and I want to be conscious," says Killen. "I had a romance with careening and spending a good deal of time unconscious, whether it was overimbibing or obsessing about work or love. But it's tempered now. I feel no less passionate, but I feel way less fucked up.

"At the Goodman, I've been able to hone these stories. and put the music in perspective, and I'm hoping to give this audience some kind of cross between cabaret, the theater, and a rock 'n' roll house."

In other words expect some rough edges, expect some fear and death and love, expect some fun with sexual preference. "I'm past the point of talking about simple heterosexual relationships," says Killen. "I've found that in my life it's all been more complicated than that. But this is not my coming-out story or my Ode to the Lesbian Sisters.

"Look, I know myself well enough to say that I don't care about being politically correct. I don't. Most of us have crossed the line of right and wrong so many times that it becomes blurred."

And speaking of blurry, is Killen the same person as Rose?

Says Killen, "So often in my life, I don't know where the fantasy begins and reality ends--for me, hell can be just around the comer. My imagination tends to usurp reality."

Killen will be performing The State I'm In: A Travelogue at the Goodman Theatre Studio, 200 S. Columbus Drive, Tuesday, January 25, through Sunday, January 30. Admission is $12. Call for show times.

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

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