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Volume 77, Number 22 | Oct. 31 - Nov. 06, 2007

Photo by Max Ruby

Karen Finley in her latest performance piece, “Wake Up!,” now at the Green Room.

Karen Finley’s wake up call


Midway through opening night of her new two-part performance piece, Karen Finley broke off, marched into the audience to look at something that was disturbing her, then returned to the microphone with an apology: “I have post-traumatic stress from John Frohnmayer.”

She had just told a dirty joke built around Elizabeth Taylor that was the worst joke, bar none, dirty or otherwise, that anyone has ever told. It had slipped in among that part of the show devoted to “The Dreams of Laura Bush,” most of which, in Ms. Finley’s quasi-satirical imaginings, were quite dirty enough, not to say simplistic enough. Example gratia:

Tony Blair to the dreaming Mrs. G.W. Bush: “I’ve done a lot for your country, Laura. The least you could do is give me a blow job.”

John Frohnmayer, kiddies, was the unfortunate chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts who in 1990, giving in to pressure by bloviating know-nothings like Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, rescinded modest NEA grants to four anti-establishment performance artists (Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, John Fleck, Karen Finley) who took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and lost.

Ms. Finley has a right to her post-traumatic stress disorder, but all that was long ago. Ancient history. She is still reacting, in large part, at least in performance, like an angry — very angry — child. In the next breath one must allow that the world, and this country — her subject matter (plus sex and the status of women) — hasn’t turned all that much for the better in the interim.

The doings every Sunday through November 18 at the Blue Room, which is more nearly a midnight-black room, downstairs at 45 Bleecker Street, consist of that first-half “The Dreams of Laura Bush,” a second and more seething half, “The Passion of Terri Schiavo” — Ms. Finley reading from, and acting out, her furious sardonic essay on, well, the sainthood (as a brain-crippled narrator sees it) of the brain-dead young woman over whose corpse-to-be so much filthy reactionary politics raged so long.

Far more lightweight are the dreams of Laura Bush, each of which is illustrated, as Ms. Finley tells those jokes, by slide projections of cartoonish drawings by her to suit (sort of).

All this is preceded, or was opening night, by a free-form rambling over the deaths, by war, destined from the cradle for all young men these days — one of Finley’s foremost current concerns. The artist, speaking betimes in a sort of Norman Mailer tough-guy pseudo-Southern accent, reaches climax in this portion by citing “The Deer Hunter” as the favorite war movie among young soldiers for the moment when its Christopher Walken fires a Russian-roulette bullet into his head with “I’m a fucking goner.”

Though Finley’s whole show is packed into 90 or 100 minutes, depending on its performer’s divagations, the Terri Schiavo piece is really self-indulgently far too long. It is also, I have to say, condescending in tone and substance, the aforesaid narrator — he/she who loves/worships helpless Terri Schiavo — being of free-floating gender, wounded psyche, and a prime painted-in-by-the-numbers example of what H.L. Mencken called the great American booboiserie.
A key paragraph:
I love Terri like I used to love binge drinking and crystal meth. I love Terri almost as much as I love my daddy whom I never met. I love Terri as much as my mother who told me I couldn’t do a goddam thing. I love Terri almost as much as I love my drunk father who porked me when I was four. I love Terri as much as I love my mother who beat the shit out of me with a belt while telling me to pray to Jesus. I love Terri as much as I love my sister who burned me with cigarettes. I love Terri more than I love the rapist who got me pregnant. I love Terri as much as my mammogram that I can’t afford. I love Terri like fast food and no carbs. I love Terri in a way that I wish I could be loved. I love Terri like I like bowling.
Like I like bowling. There it is. Got it? Fast food and bowling. Lower class, underclass. Not one of us.

Karen, my dear, that is elitism. And so, in large part, is your show. But I am glad that you’re alive and kicking, and I particularly liked the drawing — the quick painting that resembled a wrought-iron gate — you did before our eyes as preface to the Terri Schiavo portion; Keep kicking. But please, keep maturing.
WAKE UP! A performance piece by Karen Finley. Sunday nights at 7 through November 18 at the Green Room, 45 Bleecker Street, (212) 239-6200, or www.telecharge.com.

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