at Club Lower Links


Chicago Actors Ensemble

In the United States the chanson realiste tradition, with its highly romanticized glimpses of life on the seamy side, has been largely carried on by female entertainers whose stories reflected–or were imagined to reflect–a “right to sing the blues.” The legends that grew up around Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, and Janis Joplin have all reinforced the myth of the brave, brokenhearted chanteuse with her eyes on the stars, her nose in a whiskey bottle, and her derriere in someone else’s bed.

Paula Killen drew on this mystique in Music Kills a Memory, a dramatic hymn to the power of cheap, sentimental ditties to transcend suffering and even death, as they do for thousands of Americans (along with bodice rippers and soap operas). She draws on it again in her current piece, A Cocktail of Flowers: The Life and Afterlife of Doll Baby, told in a blend of song fragments and first-person monologues–the former accompanied by Chuck Larkin, reprising his Monty Carlisle character in Music Kills a Memory, and the latter assisted by Christina Carey as Minnie the Maid. Killen plays Doll Baby, who chronicles her spiritual development from precocious and abusive childhood to fatal plunge from a Las Vegas hotel balcony. But Doll Baby’s ostensible final thought–“Try to aim for a white rag-top Cadillac”–is not actually her last. Following her suicide she spends time in limbo–depicted as a seedy apartment building inhabited by other “transients”–equipped with a radio, a suitcase, and a male identity. Gradually she comes to recognize that sex and affection are more than tools for manipulation, and thus is prepared to reenter the land of the living 20 years later when her body–which had been donated to cryogenic experimentation–is unfrozen. We leave Doll Baby enjoying a life-style not unlike her old one but enriched by her new awareness and understanding of the people around her. “I fit right in,” she shrugs. “Everybody wants to date a dead girl.”

What prevents A Cocktail of Flowers from becoming a parody of an already hyperbolic art form is the unflinching seriousness with which Killen takes her character. Initially done up like Marilyn Monroe and displaying a vocabulary in which “attractive” is the highest accolade (as in “They were gamblers, bad, bad men–very attractive”), Killen does not attempt to conceal that to her sophisticated well-to-do audiences Doll Baby is a vulgar joke. But she presents the character with a sincerity and empathy that effectively stifle any mean-spirited ridicule. Whether dancing a childishly awkward bossa nova or crooning that most macho of sappy love songs, “Behind Closed Doors” (with an exquisitely understated Presley take), Killen keeps us balanced between the impulse to laugh and the equally strong impulse to sweep her up in our arms and cuddle her.

There are also plenty of uncruel laughs in the show. “If you think death is a cliche, dying won’t change your mind,” Doll Baby warns us, and then proceeds to sing “Something Cool.” Speaking of a bridge game with another denizen of limbo Doll Baby grumbles, “We played with imaginary cards. I think she cheated.” There is even a sly in-joke for those who remember the denouement of Music Kills a Memory. “I was only born yesterday,” Doll Baby announces after her resurrection, “but I am not like other children. I have a past.” Indeed she does, and hearing her deliver the saccharine “This Guy’s in Love With You” with enough unabashed emotion to make us cry and a trembling vibrato that recalls the great chanteuse realiste herself, Edith Piaf, one is inclined to predict a long and successful future for her creator.

The Weird Sisters are largely drawn from the ensemble gathered two years ago for the premiere of the rock opera Red Tango. They now present The Weird Sisters in Recital: 13 new songs from composer Thomas T. Yore–though “song” doesn’t seem quite right for these intricate combinations of music, dance, and oratorical and technical effects, which elevate each piece to the level of a full production number. Jennifer Ford’s icy soprano is as breathtakingly crystalline as in Red Tango, and David K. Smith’s mellow tenor as effortlessly soothing. Marc A. Nelson and David Thibodeaux contribute powerhouse vocals, particularly the latter in the cruelly ironic “Baby,” in which a young man groans “Baby, I want you / Baby, I’ve gotta have you” to an unknown child still reposing in its neglected mother’s womb. Other outstanding numbers include the gently satiric “Black Girl,” in which several characters express a wish to be some color or gender other than their own, and the playful lament “While I’m Still in My Prime” (“If sex comes back in my time / I hope it comes back when I’m still in my prime”), featuring Duane Eddy-style guitar, syncopated clapping, and a chorus who throw condoms to the audience.

The hangar-size loft at the Preston Bradley Community Center, with its Greek-revival pilasters and 12-by-10-foot murals, has just the right tawdry splendor, the lighting and set decoration are just this side of psychedelic, and the tunnel-like acoustics render the lyrics no more unintelligible than they would have been in any large auditorium. The Weird Sisters encourage dancing, and most of the music has enough wiggle power that people still in their seats by the salsa-tempo finale should have their feet examined immediately.