nytheatre.com review by Larry Kunofsky
October 28, 2007
Karen Finley is world famous as a performance artist and an agent provocateur, someone whose work—mostly one-person shows—is edgy, personal, and raw. She is famous for being one of several artists whose work all but shut down the National Endowment for the Arts, which, in my book, makes her a kind of counter-culture hero in the name of artistic freedom and the First Amendment. She is also world famous for smearing chocolate over her naked body in a performance piece. I truly can't imagine if that performance was erotic, or disturbing, or both—I think that's something for which one just had to be there—but I was pretty certain when I signed up to review Wake Up! that I was in for an experience of truly visceral theatre.
And, indeed, Wake Up! is as viscerally unpleasant an evening of theatre as I have ever experienced. If anyone reading this is intrigued by such a notion, I must clarify that by "viscerally unpleasant," I don't mean viscerally-unpleasant-good, as in, say, Edward Bond's play Saved, in which some thugs murder a baby. I've seen that play and was made almost sick to my stomach by that scene, and yet found the play to be, on its own terms, beautiful—riveting, a truly morally serious play that exposes the ugly side of humanity in as true and direct a way as possible. Wake Up! is viscerally-unpleasant-bad, as in lacking in entertainment, cohesion, and coherence.
On paper, Wake Up! sounds pretty good: Karen Finley presents two monologues with slide projections about dreams. The first, "The Dreams of Laura Bush," is a series of dreams that Finley imagines our First Lady has had, along with Finley's playful illustrations. The second, "The Passion of Terri Schiavo," is about the dreams and hopes that various people have for, or have imposed on, the famous tragic coma-sufferer. This may not sound like theatre for everyone, but it seemed like theatre for me. I'm always hungry for a little politics in my night out, a little thoughtfulness in the face of suffering. I loved the idea (and still do) that Karen Finley is trying to wake us all up from one collective nightmare or delusion or another. But Finley makes no serious attempt to get us to think or feel about anything in any way than we already do.
The Bush piece is in no way political, and the Schiavo piece is not sensitive or thoughtful, at least not to my mind. "The Dreams of Laura Bush" just name-drops famous political leaders and their families, placing them in surreal situations in a series of dreams that are only as interesting as anyone else's dreams when they try to explain them to you. There's also a very gross and unfunny joke about Liz Taylor's vagina that could have at least been mercifully brief, but is dragged on for minutes and took years off my life.
"The Passion of Terri Schiavo" is grosser, less amusing, and much harsher. It seems to me to be nothing more than a litany of celebrities and what they think of Schiavo (what Mel Gibson thinks of Terri, what Jason Alexander thinks of Terri, etc.), repeated sound bites, and absurd-without-being-funny marketing strategies for pro-Terri-lifers. Through what seemed like the majority of this piece, Karen Finley assumes the persona of someone attempting to put Terri Schiavo on TV to promote the cause of sustaining her life. "We can do an American Idol for people in a vegetative state, and no one would ever vote Terri off."
"The Passion of Terri Schiavo" lacks point of view. I suspect that Karen Finley wishes that Schiavo would have been left in peace to die, but this is really only a guess. Objectivity could have added strength to such inflammatory subject matter, and, for that matter, an extremely powerful argument one way or the other would have been equally strong. But this piece is only sloppy in connecting the dots and very random in its associations. Because it deals with a very real human being's very real pain and suffering only by mocking other people's feelings regarding this pain and suffering, "The Passion of Terri Schiavo" is horrendously offensive. And not horrendously-offensive-good, the way satire is often offensive, but horrendously-offensive-bad, as in the way self-conscious, maudlin, emotional-without-thoughtfulness, personal-without-universality works of art are always offensive.
I interrupt this negative review to report the positive response from the audience on the night that I saw it. On a cold Sunday night in late October (not always a good time for seat-filling), Karen Finley completely packed the house with ardent fans, friends, and other admirers. My companion and I seemed to me to be the only ones not thoroughly enjoying ourselves. We were having the worst time imaginable, but I want to state for the record that most of the audience simply gushed at Karen Finley's performance. So maybe it's just me (and my date).
But I really don't think so. Although I was an as-of-yet non-affiliate of Karen Finley's work before seeing Wake Up!, I never once had the slightest intention of becoming a Karen Finley playa-hatah. I approached Wake Up! with more than an open mind; I jumped at the chance to review the show so that I could finally see one of our theatre's living legends on stage. For free. And yet, I still wanted my money back. And my time.
I should say that Karen Finley can often be commanding on stage. She does voices. She can be meditative, almost hypnotic. However, Karen Finley, at least on the night that I saw her perform, can also be informal to the point of idiosyncrasy. When she didn't get the opening applause she wanted, she told the audience that she'd go off and come back on again for another chance for the audience to "act like you're glad to be here," and then did so. When she saw a green dot in the audience, she stopped the performance, moved towards the audience and said, "Wait, what is that green dot in the audience? Oh, I see, it's just a green dot." This loopiness was more than indulged by the audience; they ate it up.
It made me think of the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. On the night I saw Karen Finley perform, she had no chocolate on stage with which to smear herself, metaphorically or otherwise, but, although fully clothed, she seemed pretty naked to me. And not naked-good, either.