Niagara Falls: Straight to the Top

Paula Killen

at Famous Door Theatre, through December 17

From the moment Monte Carlisle and Niagara Falls mount the Famous Door stage, it’s clear that Paula Killen’s latest show will continue her campy, over-the-top tradition, this time with a pinch of Gong Show and a dash of Vegas mixed in with the usual monologues. Carlisle (Chuck Larkin) is 90 percent hair, a red mass of uplifted locks that accent his sequined jacket and deadpan accompanist’s face. Niagara (Killen) swings onstage with the help of a barrel, spraying the audience with water from a plant fogger, then modestly strips off her yellow slicker to reveal a baby-doll dress that somehow matches her mismatched shoes, tiny red satin purse, and the red dot of lipstick on her nose. The crowd screams and hoots its approval; we’re in familiar territory. For those who love Killen for her chutzpah, her bright stage presence, and her long history as a performer in Chicago, nothing in this latest work will disappoint.

Niagara Falls is one of those lovable clowns who can never get what they want, distinguished from the common variety only by the fact that she actually is a clown, and not a very successful one. She’s in love with her Master, an abusive clown named Griggensbee who runs a local school, but he spurns her love while she resists his sexual advances and near assaults. Eager to become a real clown and to receive her red rubber nose, she’s tortured by the meaningless exercises and philosophical meditations her Master imposes. It’s not that she’s stupid; she just insists on seeing the good in everyone and everything (almost). So she’s doing a variety show about love, patriotism, loneliness, and her search for her personal clown. Niagara’s shticks include psychic reading, a modern interpretation of Salome, songs, and conversations on an onstage speakerphone whenever anyone calls in.

The most interesting, playful idea is the phone calls. The program lists a number and an E-mail address where audiences can reach Niagara during the show, and a few people seem to have taken her up on this offer. One audience member had Niagara call his mother in Baltimore, and a woman called in to ask Niagara out. The idea was more interesting than the conversations, but it was fun to wait for the phone to ring in the middle of a song or speech. These phone improvisations often seemed more Paula than Niagara though: eagerly accepting a date with a woman doesn’t fit with the clown’s pitiful supplications to her Master or her pride in her virginity.

Killen often emerges unexpectedly from behind the mask of Niagara to belt out a song, do a little Liza Minnelli imitation, or make an ironic comment. Deft vocal shifts signal the change as the higher-voiced, perky, giggling, mildly irritating clown persona drops away. Killen is good at using this performance-art convention to highlight stories important to her. And she sometimes drops the mask only slightly, using a calmer, deeper voice punctuated by giggles or brisk twitches. The best moment of this half-mask comes during the pivotal story of a woman jilted at the altar who goes through with the wedding anyway, marrying herself: the ultimate personal clown.

Because Killen’s character is a sketch more than a person, this unmasking and remasking strategy makes it easy for us to laugh at Niagara’s desperate anxiety and pluck. But it also emphasizes Killen’s sometimes too-literary writing. By creating a character that’s only a mask for her ideas, Killen makes herself the star of Niagara’s show–she wears her persona loosely, keeping the evening’s shtick flowing. Killen’s points about nationalist corruption, homophobia, ageism, abortion rights, and other social issues are crowbarred into Niagara’s monologues. The clown merely embodies the idea that a remarkable hopeful charm often survives even when someone’s dreams have been unacknowledged, abused, and abandoned. Even that theme is mocked, however, in deadpan versions of “Send in the Clowns” and rambling asides about the grief of love that make comedy out of the melodrama of Niagara’s loneliness.

It’s not that I wanted to weep for poor Niagara or expected Killen to take a more traditional theatrical approach to characterization, submerging herself to the point of invisibility. She’s an excellent performer, confidently carrying off her loose goofiness. But I would have liked to see her follow the character deeper into that goofiness, trusting Niagara enough to improvise through and with her, not to write and perform over her head. There’s a certain virtuosity in Killen’s work, an intellectual wit that can be very entertaining with the right mask. Niagara is dwarfed by Killen’s onstage persona and literary presence, and likable as she is, she seems lampooned by her creator’s ideas, if not by Killen herself.

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