At the start of The Jackie Look, Karen Finley, wearing dark shades and white polyester slacks, takes the stage as an almost robotic Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, while iconic Camelot-era and, then, assassination photos flash on a projection screen. Pacing, Finley/Jackie reaches out in futile attempts to touch her husband’s casket and her (then) very young children, John, Jr. and Caroline. These affecting gestures are unfortunately among The Jackie Look’s few inspired sparks. Soon, Jackie, shrugging off her grief, guides us through an amusing critique/riff of the JFK Presidential Library and Museum’s web site. Snarkily she attacks its online gift store for peddling assassination postcards and picks apart, for their sheer tawdriness, specials on Dealey Plaza holiday ornaments and media products like Oswald’s Ghost and Camelot: The Broadway Cast. The tour is campy and few of her jokes actually land. Finley then falters and begins grasping for material to fill out this ultimately long winded production.
Finley next spends a bit of time on the word "assassination," noting apropos to nothing much that it twice contains the word “ass” (“Onassis” has one but she omits that). She also critiques a photo taken of her prior to the Dallas assassination which shows her holding a bouquet of red roses rather than the obviously more appropriate yellow roses of Texas. When there’s no obvious punch line, Finley might just say, in her shy Jackie voice, “I just thought that was interesting.”
Karen Finley is perhaps best known as a member of the notorious “NEA Four,” a group of controversial performance artists whose funding by the National Endowment for the Arts caused a massive protest among cultural conservatives and led to Congress’ discontinuation of individual artist grants. Some may find it surprising that Finley’s Jackie seems to know quite a bit about one of Finley’s contemporaries — photographer Andres Serrano — whose notorious 1987 photograph, “Piss Christ,” depicting a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine became a lightning rod for the wrath of Senator Jesse Helms. Again, apropos of nothing, Jackie claims that a magnification of a photograph showing the rifle used to kill JFK resembles “Piss Christ.” Other than being yellowish, it has no discernible resemblance. Is this simply filler? Or a way for Finley to inject herself and her legacy into history? Is this an attempt on Finley’s part to remind us of her past as a provocateur?
In The Jackie Look, Finley alternates between Jackie as airhead and Jackie as deconstructionist theorist; yet, Kennedy Onassis was neither. On the one hand, the production is a campy send-up. On the other (and longer) hand, it’s a dreary sermon.
The disjointed The Jackie Look falls most flat in its second segment in which Jackie again returns from the afterlife to deliver a jargon-filled talk on the “gazing of trauma” to the Society of Photographic Education. Finley/Jackie’s claim that she is here to “consider transformation from trauma and to release our national images of trauma,” sounds more like a presentation to the Modern Language Association than a monologue. The piece alternates between a lecture and an interminable, indulgent, free-form poetry slam piece, in which Jackie comments on, among other topics, Mayor Daley of Chicago, Michelle Obama’s bare shoulder dresses and her own son’s plane crash. Jackie begs us to release her from our gaze and coughs up English dissertation gibberish:
“When you held your camera to hide your face to see my face—my face—I became your face. What do we do to claim infant eye attachment?”
Finley delivers occasional moments of poignancy and incisiveness but they are few and very far between. What starts out as a promising, biting comedy morphs into an unremitting Susan Sontag essay.
The venue for this production is all wrong, as well. On the evening I attended, the eating and drinking audience at the Laurie Beechman Theatre’s cabaret setting (recent home to Joan Rivers and upcoming productions with titles like Fat Bitch! and My Queer Youth) was primed to laugh. Then it was patiently waiting to laugh. Soon, it was desperate to laugh. It charitably stretched out its chuckles during the critique segment, and was clearly hoping for a reprise. The audience expected to meet the “Jackie-O” who rubbed elbows with Andy Warhol, the fashion icon Jackie with the outrageous department store bills, the Jackie with the insatiable appetite for wealth. When the lights came on, they seemed disappointed and mystified by Finley’s lumpy gruel.
Way before the end of Finley’s ultimately incoherent monologue, one becomes bored with this fictional Jackie’s whining, and her tired, pretentious content. With last summer’s death of Ted Kennedy and Caroline’s aborted Senate bid, it appears that, more than ever, the Kennedy mystique is weakening. We’re letting go. Karen Finley isn’t.