Jenny Magnus and Paula Killen

at the Mercury Theater, March 1 and 2

By Justin Hayford

If one more journalist drags me along on a print tour of the new Mercury Theater and gushes about how “intimate” it is, I’m going to puke. In the theater, “intimacy” is a term as empty as “quality” in the automobile industry: it means “not large.” Sure, the Mercury is intimate. So is the basement at Cafe Voltaire. So are most high-rise elevators. About the only theater in town that has to struggle for intimacy is Steppenwolf, with its curious architectural hybridization of Fermilab and the Grant Park garage.

The Mercury is a nice place, don’t get me wrong. The stage is well proportioned. The seat cushions are firm. There’s a lobby. It’s a big room full of chairs, black velveteen, and electrical outlets. Journalistic types, always eager to squeeze a point out of a mere fact, love to fantasize that a shiny new theater will engender shiny new art–which is like imagining that high-resolution television will improve network programming. If a theater presents good work, intimacy evolves into something few theaters in town have: life.

Which is where the Prop Theatre enters the picture. The Mercury’s premiere prime-time offering is the absurdly overhyped, overpackaged Pope Joan. But the Prop folks, devotees of outsider off-the-wallism, have taken over the Mercury’s late-night slot, presenting an open-run series of mostly solo performances titled “Sex Talk” (so far there are 12 weeks of shows programmed). The fact that the company responsible for Biker Macbeth, BUK: The Life and Times of Charles Bukowski, and Acme White Trash Lysistrata ended up in the cushy confines of the Mercury may indicate the beginning of a welcome trend: Chicago’s established theaters finally inviting the fringe over to play. (Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey, hosting Red Moon Theatre in the Steppenwolf studio and scouting the Curious Theatre Branch, seems to be on a similar course.) Then again, the Mercury’s executive producer, Michael Cullen, sits on the Prop’s advisory board. Maybe this isn’t the beginning of a trend but a favor.

In any event, the Prop has drawn from the liveliest quarters of the Chicago performance scene–including such artists as Bryn Magnus, Edward Thomas-Herrera, Jeff Dorchen, and Marc Smith–in effect picking up where the Rhino in Winter fest left off, and without missing a beat. As that festival showed, with its heady artistic mix and jam-packed audiences, there’s enough life on the fringe to blow the ceiling off its epicenter, the Lunar Cabaret. “Sex Talk” may struggle against minor charges of patronage (two of the scheduled performers are on the Prop’s board of directors), but if the sheer exuberance of the series’s opening night can be sustained, such quibbles should subside.

Fit–a joint effort by Chicago fringe reigning matriarchs Jenny Magnus and Paula Killen, with musical accompaniment by Carrie Biolo–inaugurated “Sex Talk” with a big, wet kiss. Their 45-minute free-for-all of poetry, monologues, music, dance, and spirited verbal gymnastics was not so much a unified piece as laboratory showcase. Although all the work was new, Fit seemed a kind of “greatest hits.” Very little was surprising. But I doubt many of us came to be surprised. We packed into the Mercury at midnight to hear Magnus sing yet another bitter and elliptical love song, to watch Killen once again rip the heart out of romantic poetry, to witness the convergence of two beloved homegrown stars.

Magnus and Killen, who have created some memorable solo pieces in recent years, are friends but have never collaborated. Typically Magnus has traveled an inner path. In her recent one-woman show The Willies, for example, she semisomnambulated for an hour. Killen, by contrast, has thrust herself into the big, nasty waking world and reported back to a live audience–although not without wholly imaginary digressions. While Magnus admitted that creating a piece about sex talk didn’t excite her (“It’s not where my head is at right now,” she confessed), the opportunity to team up with a talented and trusted colleague was too good to pass up.

Fittingly, Fit is hysterical, in both senses of the term. Magnus and Killen perform with mad abandon from the moment they first appear, Magnus jumping in the air screaming “Sex talk! Sex talk!” while Killen, stark naked, walks in slow motion across the stage with an expression of crazed bewilderment. Their material flows irrationally, with a monologue about sexual obsession dissolving into a series of role-playing “auditions” for the audience, which in turn dissolves into a plaintive love song, “You Are Inscrutable.” Love and insanity are never far apart; as Killen confesses to Magnus, “I followed you everywhere today, but of course you didn’t see me because I was at home in bed and made it all up.” Accompanist Biolo seems wrapped in her own mysterious cloud, banging away on a marimba and a drum set, bowing some curious instrument, rarely looking up to watch the performers or acknowledge the audience. She isn’t just crazy; she’s autistic.

Throughout, both performers seem intent on peeking behind the curtain, lifting the veil, knocking down the wall that obscures their view of life’s Great Coital Mystery. Somewhere under all the layers of cultural programming and self-defense must be an essence. But the search is in vain; sex rarely rises above signification. Achieving intimacy is like breaking a code in which every term has at least two possible meanings; those parts of our anatomy we consider most intimate are also the most ridiculous, eliciting raucous laughter at their mere mention onstage. It seems perfectly fitting that these two women perform relentlessly, trying out every minute variation of theme and tempo, looking for the flow that will allow them to forget that they’re performing. For what is sex but an elaborately self-conscious attempt to lose oneself? Sex here is an ill-fitting, itchy costume one wears in hopes that Mr. or Ms. Right will see through it.

Welcome to sex at the end of the millennium, that tragicomic cul-de-sac scrutinized under microscopes of ever higher resolution; pawed over by myriad academics, clerics, clinicians, and laypersons; offered up on every TV talk show as the ultimate monkey wrench in the human machine. With all the self-appointed experts advising us when, where, and how to do what with whom, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a fresh breeze blowing into our collective bedrooms. We’re set up for little but disappointment; as Killen explains, the lover comes to us with a full box of half-eaten chocolates. With their devil-may-care drollery, tossing off most of their material, rolling around in the sheer pleasure of performance, Magnus and Killen don’t seem to mind feeding on the scraps. They’re still mighty tasty.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.