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at ‘Od’s Blood Theatre

I think it’s time

That we all start to think about getting by

Without that need to go out and find

Somebody to love.

–Jim Carroll

In the age of New Conservatism, when any sort of excess is considered an addiction and when marriage and babies are once again predominant themes in pop culture and mass media, the quest for love has become a national obsession. Music Kills a Memory, a new work by Paula Killen, invites us to wallow in–and laugh at–the pain and loneliness of that obsession and reminds us that music and friendship can help make it bearable.

Music Kills a Memory takes the form of a lounge act, meandering its way with songs and stories through the lives of three women who meet at a Sex Addicts Anonymous session and form a singing group with silent, mysterious accompanist Monty Carlyle (Chuck Larsen). Each of the women has a wildly different personality and musical style. One is a refined, spangled and feathered torch-song heroine, the toast of gay bars throughout the country (Shane Taylor). Another is a rough, tough, only-wears-black type (Karol Kent) who sings a lot of Janis Joplin and Cher. The third (Paula Killen) is a would-be songbird whose desire outweighs her lack of training and whose songs tend toward country and soft rock.

This character plays emcee, winding her way through the traumas of her life, frequently highlighting the events with song. All Killen’s stories deal with her character’s yearning for excitement and passion, which started in early childhood. (Witnessing a horrific fire in her youth leads Killen’s character to croon “Is That All There Is?”) Her pursuit eventually leads her to Sex Addicts Anonymous.

The relationship she’s in when she joins the group is with a really nasty man who treats her terribly and manages to track her down no matter how many apartments or phone numbers she goes through. She adores him even as she tries to escape from him, of course. But she finally snaps out of it during a romantic dinner between the two: “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” is playing on the radio. She is just reaching out to cut her steak when he tells her, “You know, you really ought to watch your weight.” In a moment of passion, she stabs him with her steak knife. “First he was surprised,” she tells us. “Then he was dead.”

In order to escape retribution, and to truly set herself free, she hops in an RV with the two other women and Monty the accompanist (who always knows what to do), and they begin the Easy Does It Tour–all love songs, all the time. Each evening ends with a rendition of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.”

The tour brings its own traumas, from diva wars to actual zombie audiences. And the shows themselves include the sappiest songs of unrequited love from every decade and style. Killen does some outrageous medleys, including a horrifying juxtaposition of Karen Carpenter with Janis Joplin during which she asks the burning musical question “Who was in more pain, Karen or Janis?”

The last stop of the Easy Does It Tour is San Francisco, city of lost and stolen hearts, where Killen kicks Music Kills a Memory up a notch, from the realm of the delightfully absurd into the Twilight Zone. The evening ends on a thoughtful note of hindsight and caution, and Killen’s soft good-bye is like a warm embrace.

Music Kills a Memory is both funny and tender, filled with songs we love to mock but also love to hear in times of forlorn self-indulgence. It is performed brilliantly by all. Shane Taylor is an elegant motel-lounge queen; she croons 40s favorites and light-rock inanities with conviction, aplomb, and just the right hint of cynicism. Karol Kent’s gutsy belt perfectly matches her saucy, surly character, and Killen is utterly charming as the vulnerable, passion-filled, slightly nerdy waif with the biggest heart in the world. Chuck Larsen’s perfectly pompadoured, slightly menacing presence fills out the piece with humor and intelligence. His smirks and twitches speak volumes.

The Performers Under Stress production of Dead Soldier Walks Home, which protests the war in the gulf, is a reminder that (as Norman Mailer says about Brett Easton Ellis’s new book) “attempts to create art can be as intolerable as foul manners.” Dead Soldier Walks Home is more than the artistic equivalent of talking with a full mouth. It’s the artistic equivalent of spitting out the food on the table and then passing out on top of the hostess.

Dead Soldier Walks Home is an adaptation by Scott Baker of Robinson Jeffer’s poem The Double Axe, which was written in protest of American involvement in WWII. Its beautiful poetry echoes the sentiments of PUS about the current war.

Admirable intentions, certainly. But Baker’s adaptation strips away and minimizes the poetry while adding naive and somewhat inane musings about the current war. Some of the text is used completely out of context; there’s the scene, for instance, where a soldier conflicted about his feelings toward his mother pushes her away, moaning, “Hate, love, life, death–you know, amphibian.” (What does that mean?) The soldiers’ adversaries are such idiotic cowards that the soldiers’ hatred of them seems ridiculous. To truly fight the ideology of war, one must first understand that ideology. Dead Soldier Walks Home simply spouts slogans and jargon without actually saying anything. The upshot of all this is that the protesting soldier comes off as a hateful, homicidal maniac–we don’t want to agree with anything he might have to say.

To make matters worse, the three actors pound and screech their way about the room with little thought about what they’re saying. The mother looks younger than her son. Absurd props like plastic hamburgers and cut-off GI Joe dolls are introduced, but the play itself seems to demand a more realistic approach. Baker himself, as the soldier, is the only one of the bunch who shows potential. Unfortunately, it’s completely undercut by the group’s seeming lack of understanding of what makes powerful theater. The play could have been a powerful protest tool.