Paula Killen and Sharon Evans

the Dance Center of Columbia College

February 17 and 18

Paula Killen and Sharon Evans, the two Chicago artists featured in the first weekend of “Performance Chicago,” have widely varying styles and diametrically opposed theatrical agendas. Killen wants to confront and at times shock her audience, ripping her way through an unsettlingly intimate monologue. Evans uses a quieter approach, presenting a series of thematically linked images and ideas in a rather formal, emotionally detached manner, asking her audiences to make their own inferences.

Killen performed Road Kill, a three-part original monologue in a traditional theatrical vein that chronicles the journey of a burned-out Valley girl through a series of horribly abusive relationships. We first encounter this nameless woman at a roadside motel, where she and her boyfriend Jason have stopped on their great American road trip. She speaks to the unseen owner of the motel, slowly revealing to him a litany of Jason’s abuses, from physical beatings to emotional neglect to brutal rape. All the while she seems ready to collapse, or perhaps explode, as she clings to her Diet Coke and fifth of Seagrams, repeatedly pleading to her listener that she is, at bottom, a good girl.

Killen’s performance is at times dazzling; she speaks with furious passion and commitment. She does not inflate the grotesque scenes of utter victimization she describes but instead underplays the emotion, allowing her audience to imagine the gruesome details. Intelligently, Killen has chosen a moment when her character needs to tell her story. This is perhaps the only moment since her trip began when she has been out of Jason’s domineering presence (we discover at the very end of this first monologue that she has in fact tied him to their motel bed), which makes her desperate attempt at contact with the unsympathetic and unresponsive motel owner all the more pathetic.

Most impressive about Killen’s technique is her expressive, fragmented delivery. She rarely finishes a sentence or completes a thought, yet the weight of the emotions behind her inarticulateness is overwhelming. All that she can say to explain why her boyfriend should not hit her is: “It’s like . . . no.” Killen’s character must confront horrifying realities about her life but lacks the ability to come to terms with any of her churning, contradictory emotions about Jason.

The second and third sections of Road Kill prove to be much less successful, lapsing into self-indulgent misery and melodrama. Part two features the same woman, now a pregnant member of the Hell’s Angels, stranded in a desert 7-Eleven where her biker cohorts have dumped her. She defends her biker chick life to an unseen store manager, even boasting of her wish to become a “breeder” for the Angels. Not only does this section lack the dramatic necessity, and therefore the tension of the first monologue, but Killen performs it with a deadeningly consistent emotional frenzy. She seems to be on automatic, gliding over subtleties and nuances that might have given this high-intensity piece some needed texture.

The third section not only repeats the performance style of the earlier sections but is thematically unfocused. The woman is now in a hospital ward, speaking to an unseen doctor and summing up everything that happened in the second section (so why include the second section?). Then she flies into a hallucinatory discussion with yet another unseen listener, this time an incestuous father figure. She eventually sets him on fire, and ends with a gratuitous impersonation of a black woman in a lengthy jive on “her man.” I couldn’t connect this monologue to the ones before, except perhaps that this woman’s final escape from a cruel world is insanity–which is a rather cheap conclusion. Also, Killen’s energy remains so frenetic that I was hardly able to listen to her anymore, longing for a quiet, focused moment that might have afforded some insight into this disjointed piece, which seemed meant to form a progression but did not.

Sharon Evans’s The Hypochondriac is anything but confused. This 20-minute dance-theater piece is built out of carefully drawn images centered around a doctor’s maniacal search for the “truth in symptoms” and a hypochondriac’s passionate attempts to understand the language of disease as it speaks to him through his body. Fundamentally, both characters are possessed by the same need: to reduce and codify the sensual experience of the body into knowable packages of information. If only the doctor could properly read the pain in the patient’s face, the proper cure would manifest itself. If only the hypochondriac could understand what his body was telling him through its various diseases, he wouldn’t need to be a hypochondriac anymore.

Both the doctor (Evans) and the hypochondriac (Jeremy Piven) seem entirely out of touch with sensual knowledge, which is here embodied in the Pill Lady (Catherine Evans), a beguiling figure dressed like Carmen Miranda decked out with pills instead of fruit who dances around the edges of the stage. She indulges in the expressive potential of her own physicality, delighting herself and the audience with a series of languid dance gestures that contain more significance than all of the intellectual ramblings of the other characters.

The Hypochondriac is sharply directed by Sharon Evans and Curt Columbus, who exploit the beautiful expanse of the Dance Center’s cavernous theater (it nearly swallowed Killen). Steve Hawk’s live percussion accompaniment gave each section of. the piece a distinctive color, adding to the piece’s overall unity. Piven was especially delightful as the hypochondriac, unashamedly lingering over his symptoms, lusciously describing every detail of his earaches. While The Hypochondriac was a rather light piece, merely touching on some very weighty subject matter-the combined threat and promise of medical science, for instance–its simplicity and modesty were endearing.

Joanna Frueh and Heidi A. Lang are the artists featured in the second weekend of “Performance Chicago,” February 24 and 25.