Lost in the Funhouse

Before launching into “The Dreams of Laura Bush,” one of two-and-a-half monologues that constitute Wake Up!, Karen Finley took a moment to describe herself. As she walked from the downstage podium to the upstage desk, arranging papers and garments beneath a camera that projected image onto a screen behind her, she proclaimed: “I’m Joan Collins with a conscience.”

“I’m Britney Spears with an education.”

“I’m Liza Minelli with a Happy Family.”

These descriptions got laughs, of course, but none of them captures who Karen Finley is or, more accurately, who she presents herself to be.

After entering to applause on the night I saw her, Finley made some casual remarks to the audience, dedicating the evening’s performance to her students. Because the space is small, she had no need of a microphone, but a loud fan in the back of the audience area made it difficult to hear her. When someone complained she stepped forward and apologized, asked if the fan could be turned off, suggested that people move closer (“Oh here, this is an excellent seat,”) etc. After going through this apparently spontaneous exchange, however, Finley reassured us that we wouldn’t have any problem hearing her now that she was about to begin in earnest.

She was right. As she launched into her prologue, a short monologue about a woman who seeks out amputee veterans for sexual trysts, her voice was rich with chest resonance and easily filled the room. Was her somewhat discombobulated entrance, her initially timid voice, her attempt to quiet the room and bring the audience forward just an act, then? Or her occasional self-deprecating remarks about not being “that good an actress?” Figuring out how to read Karen Finley as a performer and as a persona are a significant part of the experience of watching Wake Up!

The two monologues that make up the body of this performance are “The Dreams of Laura Bush” and “The Passion of Terri Schiavo.” For the first of these, Finley speaks as our current First Lady, presenting pages from her personal dream diaries. The dreams range in subject matter from Condoleeza Rice having an affair with the President to Laura organizing a fictional “Dependent Film Festival” in Crawford, Texas, to a fragmented reimagining of Saddam Hussein’s hanging, to a sexual fantasy about Tony Blair. Other “dreams” are less cohesive or are just partial glimpses of images. The pages from the dream journal are drawings and sketches that Finley arranges on a desk and that are projected onto a screen behind her. The dreams form a house of mirrors of the Bush administration and of our current national moment.

In “The Passion of Terri Schiavo,” Finley steps in and out of several characters, each of them projecting their personal narratives and causes onto Schiavo’s body. Some of it is moving, some of it is funny, and some of it is intentionally offensive. The common thread between these voices is that all of them, under the guise of caring about Schiavo, are really airing their own passions, their own fears, their own guilt, looking to an image of a dying woman to be their information-age messiah. “I’ve never met her,” one of the characters says, “but I love her.” Ultimately, Finley conludes, "Terri needs her own reality TV show."

Despite Finley’s image as a polarizing figure, a reputation born from her famous court battle with the NEA in the early nineties, there is very little polemicism on display in Wake Up! Instead, it is a show by and about someone who is trying to make sense of our baffling political and cultural present. I was neither as taken with the performance as the woman to my left (another reviewer), who laughed uproariously for most of the evening, nor as puzzled as the man to my right (my guest for the evening), who wasn’t sure what to make of Finley at all. Instead, I felt a sympathy for an artist trying to work in a narrative form when the world she’s portraying seems to have lost its coherency. However, whether you love her, hate her, or are not sure what to make of her, you will leave Wake Up! with little doubt that there is no other performer quite like Karen Finley.

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