The American Chestnut

Karen Finley

Dance Chicago ’98

at the Athenaeum Theatre, October 22

By Carol Burbank

Karen Finley returned to her hometown last week for a one-night showing of her latest performance collage, The American Chestnut. Rambling on for an hour and a half against a backdrop of projected slides of her clever art, she groan-shouted stories of grief and longing. These were the most memorable insights: she used to work at Zum Deutschen Eck, she misses Chandler’s bookstore in Evanston, child rearing is perverse and funny, and Finley has turned into an incredibly lazy performer.

Joining a conglomeration of the loyal and the curious at the Athenaeum, I anticipated something creative and perhaps shocking, some howling event to activate our collective conscience or engage our prurient sensibilities. Finley’s done it before, igniting controversy as part of the NEA Four, becoming more famous for smearing chocolate on her body than for her often powerful writing. Yet the NEA controversy called attention to her innovative, trancelike performances, rages against rape, racism, violence. She’s raging about the same things now, but her carelessness is more controversial than her themes.

Take the opening scene last Thursday night, which began well. The lights dimmed, then rose with the vroom of a vacuum cleaner to illuminate a witty, even stunning image: Finley in a wedding gown hoovering the stage. Turning the machine off, she thrust her face into the air and started talking in her trademark howling head voice, which unfortunately gave her words more sound than meaning. But just as I began to get interested in what she was saying, Finley noticed a few stragglers in the back of the theater and called out clearly in an ordinary voice, squinting and smiling like a suburban hostess, “Come on in and sit down. Do you want to sit down? Come ahead.” Then she realized the people in the back didn’t want to sit down. “Oh, you’re an usher. Sorry. I’ll start again.” She winked at the audience, talked a little about working at Zum Deutschen Eck, tapped the vacuum, and started the monologue over. The comic impact of her entrance was lost; the dramatic contrast of her howl with the frilly costume was moot. And the opening monologue–a fantasia on the psychological dysfunction of Pooh Corner and motherhood–suddenly seemed merely cute. I could envision the headline: “Karen Finley Makes Cultural Pain Cute!”

Granted, some people might see interrupting a performance to reveal the actor behind the character, making the audience part of the play, as a radical deconstruction of theatrical convention. And certainly there’s a tradition in the theater of breaking codes, making the artist’s relationship with the audience uncomfortable, unusually intimate, or flirtatious. Tim Miller sits naked on an audience member’s lap and tells compelling, funny stories. Chicago’s Neo-Futurists blur the fourth wall in Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Tina Landau’s fabulous staging of Charles L. Mee’s The Berlin Circle defies so many conventions it’s a virtual circus of deconstruction. And Finley may have been consciously using flirtatious cuteness as a strategic contrast to her raging grief and feminist ideas. Or she might just have been enjoying herself. In my imagination the adoring young man who applauded after every other monologue would say, “Is there any crime in that?” Of course it’s not a crime to play dolls in the cemetery during a funeral or to flirt with the audience while you’re trying to get them to stop objectifying women and recognize their own complicity in the violence destroying our culture. But isn’t it a little hypocritical?

Village Voice writer Michael Feingold called Finley’s coy interruptions–which also include reading from her script and instructing the audience to laugh or not laugh at certain speeches–“the alienation effects of an artist who’s never studied Brecht and doesn’t need to.” Maybe in her New York run she was more polished, less cute. But in her performance here, Finley was so casual about everything that even the juxtaposition of projected images, costumes, and stories seemed accidental. She played her greatest hits, so to speak–monologues about AIDS and abuse–reprising the tranced-out melodrama for which she’s famous, but with such cheerful distraction I couldn’t believe she really cared about these issues anymore. She was phoning in her performance, making a lot of noise, saying something clever and loving the sound of her own voice. She wasn’t paying enough attention to be talking to me.

Inattention undermined all levels of Finley’s performance. She didn’t set her props efficiently and so had to run all over the dark stage to find what she needed, creating long breaks between monologues. Her costumes–mostly variations on domestic stereotypes, nudity, or both–didn’t correspond to or contrast in an interesting way with her words and images. When she hadn’t memorized her lines, she read her scripts as if she were running a speed-through rehearsal, talking in funny voices that never consistently corresponded to the characters. And when the audience got too quiet or restless, she wiggled her tongue in a clit-licking gesture to get a laugh, and it didn’t matter whether she was talking about Hillary Clinton, sexual harassment, or Evanston Township High School.

Some people in the audience seemed charmed, laughing obligingly, grunting with appreciative seriousness when she finished a particularly moralistic monologue. But for me her successes began to feel like lucky accidents. When she knew her lines, or a slide of one of her paintings illuminated a particularly poignant story, I began to listen closely. Then she’d undercut herself by acting as if we were all at the show for a glimpse of a more fun-loving Karen Finley, the one we’d like to have a martini with at our high school reunion.

I began to wonder whether all the potential I’d seen in Finley’s early work was merely the brash courage of the very young. Or maybe the NEA publicity made her enough of a box-office draw that she decided it was her we wanted to see, not polished work. So, she figured, it’s OK to read a script, pausing to scratch her nose and find her place while she screams a potentially interesting story–a comic monologue, a parody of pornography imagining fashions that reveal a man’s penis, spoken into a handheld camera focused on her lingerie-clad body. And it’s OK to juxtapose affecting images of a baby’s head emerging from a vagina with a rejected wife’s banal poem about the revenge of the fierce vagina dentata.

After ten years of steady, highly visible work, Finley should be coming into her own as a performance-art leader. To her credit she’s trying to shift convention, her politics are right-on if blurry, and even in the butchered scenes of The American Chestnut her writing is beautiful. But when it comes down to it, she’s just telling the same stories she told before with less passion, adding a few cool new visuals and a flip, sexy persona that turns her cartoonish political storytelling into something an articulate guest might say on the Jerry Springer show. What a waste.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.