Just a few words of praise for Killy Dwyer’s Sleep Depraved, which we caught in the Frigid Festival over the weekend.
I’m not sure if I know anyone as talented as Killy, at least not anyone possessing all these talents in this combination: she acts like an actor, sings like a singer, raps like a rapper, writes like a writer, is as funny as a stand-up comedian, plays several musical instruments, incorporates multimedia (video created by her husband Craig Schober; and audio loops generated on the fly by herself), and plays with reality (real life, real stuff) in ways that elevate her work into performance art as opposed to ordinary solo theatre. In the current show, she even threw puppetry into the mix. There’s so much going on formally, so many approaches, so many variations on a theme, with so much command of each element, she’s beginning to remind me of Basquiat.
When you’ve got that much going on upstairs, there’s a very real danger of not being able to turn it off, and that is what her latest show is about. Like so many creative people, and probably to a greater degree than most, Killy suffers from chronic insomnia. If you’ve ever had the problem, you know of its myriad tortures. The inability to quiet a racing mind for hours on end is its own hell. The next-day stuporific and cranky fatigue is the misery that follows. Accomplishing anything at all in such a mental and physical state is a feat unto itself. Here, Killy has commendably turned it into art. As always, she puts out a blinding amount of wattage. As an audience member, I walked away with a cocktail of reactions I can’t even begin to reverse engineer. For the many who share her malady, there will be commiseration and maybe catharsis. (“I feel seen,” my own sleep-deprived genius-wife half joked.) Concern for the artist will be unavoidable. She confides that she takes a medicine cabinet worth of pharmaceuticals plus booze to try to conk herself out, and even so it doesn’t really work. Is she swigging real booze on stage? As someone who’s done it a zillion times, and performs with a thousand others who do and have, I don’t judge, but simply mention it for the note of danger it strikes in this context, for those who don’t assume she has tea in her Jameson’s bottle. If it’s real it’s kind of a Janis Joplin thing to do.
So there is danger in the show. It evokes empathy. But it is also damn funny and entertaining. Killy is confessional and real but she is also SHOW BIZ. Her hilarious songs somehow always seem to me a mix of hip hop and a more gonzo version of Doris Day. She is plugged in to the moment, but she is also kind of Vegas. The humor makes the angst that underlies everything bearable, but also makes me worry: do the laughing people hear what she’s saying? “Are you my nightmare or am I yours?” she asks at one point, and I can’t imagine a bigger nightmare than having a crowd of people laughing at your troubles. But that’s the machine she’s built. And Dwyer is a people-pleaser. She is here to share and that can’t happen if she’s a total and utter drag, not that she’s capable of being one. One of the most magical moments in the show, ingenious in its simplicity and its relevance, is a “sleepover” moment, where Killy puts a big “blanket” over the stage and makes a tent, and reads us a story and gets us to make the sound effects. We are all “up” with her, we are all in it. She is like the most vivacious friend at the slumber party. She happens to be entertaining us, but we are at this party, too. She is close to us, and she needs something. Only the monstrous would seek to evade whatever that is.
This is big stuff. Beyond my concern for the artist, who is almost literally walking a tightrope in this piece, I walked away thinking she is well past ready for her big time moment. This piece will speak to a lot of people. I can easily see her attracting the kinds of adoring throngs that have been the portion of Karen Finley or Penny Arcade. Or in a show bizzier direction, a streaming sitcom in the Broad City/Russian Doll vein. Broad City meets The Doris Day Show. That’s the sitcom I’d pitch for Killy. I hope it happens for her. Maybe the exhaustion of making a TV show would knock her out for a few hours at the end of the day.