Paula Killen

at the Curious Theatre Branch, through April 30


at the Goose Island Brewing Company, through April 30

“Paula Killen has a gift,” I wrote in a review last February, referring to her extraordinary ability to attract press attention to The State I’m In: A Travelogue at the Goodman Studio. But her show underwhelmed all but the most devoted fans. Once again Killen received lots of ink–this time the kind artists don’t like to get. She didn’t take these reviews well at all. I’ve since heard through the grapevine that I was not the only media person to be singed by her rage–that even Killen-friendly writers who wrote fairly puffy pieces received blistering phone calls.

Hell hath no fury like a Killen panned.

The funny thing is that, despite all the sound and fury, Killen clearly learned something from her bad reviews. Her new version of The State I’m In–now subtitled A Travelogue, Continued and playing at the Curious Theatre Branch–is leaner, clearer, and more interesting.

The outline of her picaresque story remains the same: a Killen-like character named Rose travels from Seattle to Chicago and back to her home in California, experiencing life, liberty, love, and death. But in this version I was more aware of the heart behind Killen’s talk. And of the terrible sense of loss in the work–entirely missing in the Goodman show. She not only mentions three significant deaths and a failed suicide attempt, but in her few moments of reflection Rose muses on what a strange, sad journey her life has been.

I suspect part of the change in the show is the result of Killen’s more relaxed manner. The intimate Curious Theatre space is reminiscent both of Club Lower Links (where Killen did much of her early work) and of everyone’s childhood basement playroom. Stories that seemed so many empty words at the Goodman–for example, Rose’s return to Seattle broke, divorced, and an artistic failure–in the Curious space are more poignant. Killen’s body language too seems more expressive. At the Goodman she performed as stiffly as a political candidate falling behind in the polls, but here she moves with a dancer’s grace and fluidity, illustrating her story with gestures and attitudes that are a delight to watch.

The change of venue can’t explain all the improvements, however. Killen has done a lot to punch up the stories–cutting sections that didn’t work, adding telling details and bits of narration. Killen’s tales of the road are often still digressive, but they don’t mush together into a long, gray evening the way they did at the Goodman.

The State I’m In is not now a perfect work. Far from it. Whole sections desperately need to be hacked, especially two long sequences in hell with an annoying devil who talks with a raspy voice worthy of shtickmeister Billy Crystal. These hellish sections, which actually interrupt interesting stories, add nothing to Killen’s piece. And they undermine her initial semiautobiographical premise, raising the bullshit quotient to toxic levels. Whether or not the story is literally true, I believe Killen when she says she knew a poet who died in Seattle; I don’t believe her when she says she met a cigar-chomping devil who called her “Spicy.”

If she cut some sections, Killen might solve the other problem with her show: the stories that are worth listening to aren’t filled out. We no sooner get to know characters in one city than Rose flies off to another and introduces new characters and problems. Some might argue that this is Killen’s point–that Rose fears intimacy. The only problem is that Killen’s portrait of Rose is as sketchy and flighty as Rose’s journey. It’s as if she were as afraid of telling us Rose’s whole story as Rose seems to be of staying in one place too long.

This skittish quality to her story telling gives the audience at once too much and not enough. The State I’m In contains so many scenes, characters, and events that it produces acute sensory overload. But like an analysand flitting from topic to topic, always afraid she might unwittingly reveal something to her analyst, Killen breezes over her tales, moving so quickly we never really understand the significance of this scene or those characters, or even why she’s chosen to tell us this story instead of the hundreds of others she might have told.

It’s a shame, because I’m now convinced that buried in this flawed work is enough material for three shows at least. But Killen hasn’t refined it. Even with the changes for the better, we’re once again left wanting both less and more.

Killen could learn a lesson or two from performance artist Jerry Curry. Taking a single simple, almost silly premise–creating a mock ritual in praise of beer–he manages to produce, with a brace of collaborators, an hour-long “interactive sensory drama” that is accessible and entertaining yet still a valid bit of performance work and a moving spiritual experience.

Using the inner sanctum of the Goose Island microbrewery as a performance site–much of With Beer takes place around the steel vats where the beer is brewed–Curry and company lead a band of 15 or so audience members through every aspect of their beer ritual. First comes the beer worshiper’s catacombs, a storage facility in the basement where the audience is invited to taste, smell, and feel the ingredients that go into beer–malt, yeast, barley. Moving into the comparatively open area around the vats, we’re taught chants in praise of these ingredients, watch an interpretive dance about fermentation, and finally participate in a worship service in which the goddess of beer delivers a homily, reveals her true name (Blanche), and leads a toast in praise of herself.

All of this is performed in the tongue-in-cheek style I associate with the Church of the Subgenius (whose chanted refrain is “Praise Bob!”). Interestingly, as in Church of the Subgenius rituals, this mock religiosity creates moments of genuine spiritual communion, as moving as those in the most proper church service. Maybe more moving. Certainly I’ve never felt as strong a bond with others at church as I felt during an extended chanting sequence in the Goose Island “catacombs.”

But it shouldn’t be surprising that this gentle satire of neo-paganism has its own neo-pagan moments. Most satire is ambivalent, containing both anger at and love for whatever’s being satirized. Curry’s send-up of rituals represents a rebellion against religion and a yearning for a true religion, one that would be immune to his gibes. That Curry’s eucharist is built around beer instead of wine and bread (or, to pick a more primitive example, the sacrifice of a ram) is only happenstance. We may be raising a glass, but we’re also sending a joyful noise unto the Supreme Being, whoever and wherever She may be.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Lisa Ebright.