Paula Killen

at the Goodman Studio, January 26-30

Paula Killen has a gift. Not as an actor. Though she’s good, there are dozens of women in Chicago who can act circles around her. Not as a semiautobiographical writer-storyteller. Again, Chicago has a plethora of witty, intelligent storytellers–Cheryl Trykv, Jenny Magnus, Donna Blue Lachman–at least as interesting onstage. What Killen has is a gift for media surfing.

Wherever she’s performing, whatever project she’s involved in at the moment–whether one of her mainstream acting gigs, a performance piece, or a performance variety show (Big Goddess Pow Wow, Wac-A-Go-Go, 11 Minutes Max!)–Killen has a knack for attracting ink. Even when her work is uneven or flat-out bad (like A Cocktail of Flowers, her dreadful late-night follow-up to Music Kills a Memory), Killen attracts the kind of press attention most performers would die for.

Of course it helps that she gives great interview. Warm, witty, intelligent, articulate, Killen always leaves a writer with plenty of fascinating, extremely quotable sound bites. It also doesn’t hurt that her intensely self-involved shows–she nearly always plays characters in the midst of some devastating personal crisis–never raise any difficult philosophical or political questions. Instead she fills her performances with hip, glamour-obsessed, mildly cutting-edge references of the sort life-style journalists depend upon to fill the pages between the ads. In this show we get tattoos, coyotes, and lesbian chic.

Killen’s gift was never more apparent than during the week before her opening of The State I’m In: A Travelogue at the Goodman Studio. You couldn’t open a paper without encountering a story about her. There was an exhaustive, meandering cover story in New City, a considerably shorter piece on the calendar page of the Reader, another cover story in the Sunday Arts section of the Tribune, a Sun-Times preview, even a timely one-paragraph squib in Chicago magazine (part of an article listing “fifty of the brightest stars in today’s Chicago theater”). This is what happens, I suppose, when a media maven like Killen collaborates with the Goodman’s exceptionally savvy and well-connected press department.

Unfortunately, after all this coverage, Killen’s show is, well, underwhelming. Reportedly in process since early autumn, The State I’m In still seems unfinished–shapeless, unfocused, confusing, at once too long (some of the sections seem to go on forever) and too short: Killen ends the show abruptly just when things are beginning to get interesting.

Her series of meandering monologues recounts the life and adventures of a very confused woman, eventually called Texas Rose, as she wanders from state to state (hence the show’s title, get it?) looking for love, or maybe just good sex, in all the wrong places. Killen never tells us that these tales are semiautobiographical, but she’s dropped enough hints to suggest that they are: all the stories are told in first person, and in the Tribune article Paula reminisces about her beloved, eccentric Aunt Paula, while in the show Rose reminisces about her beloved, eccentric Aunt Rose.

Not that it really matters. There’s something about Killen’s story-telling technique that makes even moments clearly grounded in reality–as when she wistfully describes her youthful bravado moving from Seattle to Chicago to get married and start a career as a performance artist–seem like total bullshit.

A deeper problem is the deadening sameness to all of Killen’s stories, autobiographical and fabricated alike. Killen’s character begins each monologue at essentially the same psychological point–she’s extremely needy, hungry for approval and love–and no matter what outrageous thing happens, she never seems to learn or grow. In story after story, Killen’s character goes through the same routine: travel somewhere, meet someone (man or woman, it doesn’t matter), fall in love (or at least in lust), eventually leave (or get left) because it doesn’t work out. After a while it all melts together into one gray mass.

Of course, this may be Killen’s point: that her character is trapped, compelled to play out the same doomed romantic scenario again and again but with different actors. This interpretation, however, gives Killen too much credit for understanding her character’s psychological predicament.

Consider Rose’s happiest moment: after all her wanderings, she ends up in the protective arms of her parents, in their beachfront home. Rose even strips off her clothes and wades out into the warm, womblike ocean! You have to go back to Sal Paradise’s defeated return to his aunt in the final pages of On the Road for an ending as fraught with unexamined infantile impulses and unconscious desires for self-annihilation.

For all his narcissism, Spalding Gray is at least aware of his psychological problems–in fact, his neurotic self-awareness is one of his most charming qualities. But Killen’s Rose wanders through highly charged psychological landscapes in total, benumbed denial. Which may explain why The State I’m In doesn’t have either the warmth and directness of openly autobiographical work or the sheer variety of a theatrical, multi-character one-person show. When all is said and done, Killen is far more interesting than her work.

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