Holly Hughes

at the Blue Rider Theatre

April 3-6

“Are you mad at me? Are you going to leave?” Holly Hughes asks about three-quarters of the way through World Without End, her one-woman show. “I don’t feel I’ve done a very good job if nobody leaves.”

I groaned. That statement seems to pander both to the tired perception of performance art as intrinsically offensive and to Hughes’s own notoriety as one of the four “defunded” NEA artists in last year’s scandal. It is precisely the kind of self-referential conceit that gives performance art a bad name.

But if Hughes really measures her success by the number of people who leave her shows, then she failed miserably during this four-day sold-out N.A.M.E.-sponsored event at the Blue Rider Theatre, her Chicago debut. Nobody walked out. Despite the cause celebre of her grant rejection, Hughes’s World Without End is pretty tame; in fact, it’s offensive precisely because Hughes takes so few risks.

World Without End is a grab bag of performance, stand-up comedy, and political pamphleteering. Primarily a story about the difficult but nearly magical relationship Hughes had with her sexually liberated mother, the show explores Hughes’s fascination with female sexuality, societal pressures about gender roles, and the mysteries of love.

Hughes’s language is often rich and pointed, but her delivery lacks nuance. She comes up with more than a few biting one-liners, but most seem borrowed or old. She says, for instance, “I’m a man hater. Oh, all right, I’ll admit I don’t hate them as much as straight women.” Compare Roseanne Barr’s “People say lesbians hate men. But how can that be true? Lesbians don’t have to fuck ’em.” Not only is Barr’s version better written, it actually makes the point more clearly. And think about that: if Barr, the queen of TV sitcoms, can top a line, just how cutting-edge can it be?

Hughes’s show is not only disappointingly mainstream but surprisingly didactic, a tendency I fear has become more pronounced since the NEA crisis–to which Hughes makes too many unnecessary references. I’m sure she would say her aim is not to be topical or controversial, but I can’t think of any other reason to include the laundry list of political concerns that seem to have so little relevance to her story. At one point Hughes dances from racism to animal rights, from abortion to battered women. A little later, she two-steps around rape. Because she does little more than acknowledge the existence of each problem, she does none of them justice. This is exploitation, not exploration.

By dancing around issues, she seems to relieve herself of the responsibility of dealing with them in any context. That in turn allows her to fall more easily into cliches. At one point, she describes her orgasmic landscape as “Africa”–exotic, animalistic, dark, and forbidden. There is no trace of irony in her voice, no clue that she understands the racial stereotypes she’s drawing on. “Lately, everything I touch is turning into Europe,” she says, playing for laughs.

Often her transitions lack coherence; one is especially horrifying: “I really like it when a black person is nice to me,” Hughes says; later she simultaneously denies and asserts her own racism. Then she says, “I really like it when a dog licks my hand, because it helps me forget all the species we’ve wiped out.” I have a hard time believing that juxtaposition is intentional, since she doesn’t follow through on it. But I have little patience with an artist who is that careless, especially when she pretends to be sensitive.

Hughes makes sure, however, that she fends off any potential complaints. In fact, she covers her ass masterfully. At one point she says, “I know what you’re thinking: ‘This is not art.'” She adds, “Believe me, I’ve been told before.” So if we don’t like her art, then we must not get it? Is this some new form totally beyond challenge? It seems to me she doesn’t really know what her form is, what she’s doing–art, politics, confession. She wants the benefits of all three, but none of the responsibility. “I know the difference between art and politics,” she says a little later. “I went to art school.” With that, she dismisses all possibility of meaningful discussion, implying the necessity of an inside knowledge that’s at once hip, obtuse, and ultimately intimidating.

Frankly, I was stunned by how often Hughes backs out. After telling us she hates men, for example, she says, “I really mean that hate is just the dark side of love.” Later, she turns her back on all the autobiographical material. “This is fiction,” she shouts. “This is a work of fiction.”

The show’s sophistry comes to a head when Hughes is affirmed as a lesbian by fucking a man. Though she talks plenty about being a lesbian, all the sexual anecdotes, all the sexual activity, and all the sexual discovery in the show is heterosexual. In fact, anyone seeing World Without End without the benefit of such Hughes work as The Well of Horniness might wonder how she has come to be celebrated as–and sardonically acknowledges herself to be–the “leading lesbian playwright of her generation.”

Unquestionably Hughes has a way with words and a certain charm and presence. She’s real quick, but how smart is she? Too much of the material in World Without End makes unfulfilled promises; too much of it resists criticism.

Hughes may have gained a greater audience by virtue of the NEA scandal, but I don’t think she quite knows what to do with it. Her material’s not growing with her fame. And that’s a little scary. After all, thanks to the NEA she’s a political figure, whether she likes it or not. I can’t help but think that if a little knowledge is dangerous, what can a little notoriety do?