Shut Up and Love Me!

Karen Finley

at the Apollo Theater, through April 12

The first time I saw Karen Finley perform, she stopped in the middle of the show to scold an audience member for laughing. As I recall, she was talking about attempts to cleanse art museums, and the chortle came at the point where she imagined Michelangelo’s works being banned because he was gay. “There’s nothing funny about him being gay,” she snapped, missing what seemed obvious to me–the fellow was laughing with her, not at homosexual Renaissance sculptors. I’ve enjoyed some of her subsequent work, and I’ve never seen her pull that particular stunt again. Still, it’s been hard to shake my mental image of a performer lauded for her free-speech martyrdom wagging a schoolmarmish finger at someone who offends her sensibilities.

But in her newest full-length effort, Shut Up and Love Me!, I’m not sure Finley would know or care if anyone was laughing at her ideas or her performance. And that’s both the best and the worst thing about this maddeningly incoherent but somehow riveting evening of rants, physical comedy, metaburlesque striptease, and plain old what-the-fuck looniness and self-absorption. It’s amazing to see Finley send up her own naked-provocateur persona: the piece ends with the slathering of a foodstuff, in this case honey, on her naked bod. But it’s also frustrating these days, when John Ashcroft has covered up Justice both in the flesh (or marble anyway) and the spirit. Finley isn’t as on point with her fierce messages as she used to be. Like so many erstwhile revolutionaries, she’s opted to look inward instead of outward–to the rocky plains of lust and self-destructive obsession rather than patriarchy and oppression. Oh, she lands some punches, but not nearly as many as she has in the past.

Dressed in a red velvet dress and black stockings, Finley begins the evening with a frantic stage whisper to the tech booth, “overheard” by the audience: “I’ve got to check my tampon, so I’ll be just another moment.” (No, she doesn’t attend to this in our presence.) Then she dances her way back into the house and canoodles with various audience members, male and female alike. One woman seemed to pull away, but instead of getting a tongue-lashing from Finley, she got a sort of apology. In response the woman waved a water bottle at Finley’s relentlessly gyrating hips and said, “I’m just trying to put out your fire, baby.”

Fat chance. For the next hour Finley spews about fucked-up relationships, makes numerous bizarre asides about Chicago streets and customs (she is an Evanston native, after all), and reminds us of her NEA Four status. (Tim Miller and Holly Hughes have also dined out on their famous Supreme Court case, while John Fleck seems the silent partner of the four.) The first half of the evening in particular is sloppy but occasionally quite funny. Stretched out on a chaise longue, reading from sheaves of scribbled notes, Finley attempts to personify a woman having a deeply unsatisfactory affair with an old lover over Thanksgiving weekend. After all, spending it with her family would have entailed dealing with “a roomful of emotional derelicts who all look like me.” Jealousy of her lover’s other women (one of whom she dubs “the dog” and the other “the cat”) at one point causes her to foam at the mouth–and in one of the show’s most hilarious moments, she does a perfect pratfall on her own saliva and continues ranting, unperturbed by the string of spit dangling from her mouth.

OK, the show isn’t as bold as her post-Gulf War I appearance, when she arrived onstage buck naked and announced, “Right now I feel like wiping my ass with a yellow ribbon”–and did just that. The woman has never been afraid to push the envelope whatever her shortcomings as a performer. One’s patience with her sloppiness probably depends on sympathy with her views and on whether one believes a performer should actually figure out her lines ahead of time. This show is not radical in its sexual politics: the main theme of Finley’s overlong diatribe about lust gone wrong is that everyone spends entirely too much time talking about it and not enough time indulging in it. For a woman who’s dissected the sexist underpinnings of heterosexual relationships, this view is revolutionary in its way–downright quaint, almost sweet.

The war doesn’t go unmentioned, of course. In what is undeniably the show’s strongest section, Finley stands behind a makeshift podium and sorrowfully talks about “a man’s pain at being raised to die.” And in the smartest and most self-aware moment, she ties in the cultural imperative that men be cannon fodder with the lover’s speculation about whether her beloved would take a bullet for her. In retrospect, all the harpy-of-romance ramblings become a bit clearer–though of course they’d be a lot clearer if Finley could settle on exactly what story she’s telling to begin with.

But perhaps that’s the point. None of us really knows what the hell is happening. When the entire world seems caught up in an Alice-in-Wonderland scenario where no one in power means what he says, or even pretends that he means it, there’s something reassuring about Finley’s ability to be raw, fucked-up, questioning, horny, and funny all at once. Shut Up and Love Me! is far from polished, much of the material is overly familiar (and underrehearsed), and there may be more of the Empress with no clothes here than visionary insight. But Finley is also more genuine and generous with her audience than in any other work of hers I’ve seen.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dona Ann McAdams.