A quarter century after she gained infamy among right-wing critics as the obscene, nude “chocolate smeared woman,” performance artist Karen Finley is on stage every Sunday at the Laurie Beechman Theater with “Unicorn Gratitude Mystery,” three theater pieces presented back to back. Some might consider them little more than profanity-filled screaming rants and non-sequiturs – and the critics this time could be more than just on the right, since Hillary Clinton gets the Finley in-your-face treatment just as bluntly as Trump.
In “Unicorn,” Finley arrives on the tiny stage dressed bizarrely like a deranged reject from “Cats,” with a gold-painted cardboard horn on her head, and she sweetly praises the unicorn: “The unicorn has a golden halo with rainbow curls.” She talks of the unicorn in what starts to sound like an incantation, albeit a funny one – “The unicorn does not like Styrofoam under any circumstances….Since the Unicorn doesn’t exist they never need to worry about fraud, deleted emails or waiting for the G train.” But she ends the piece by abruptly changing course and attacking the unicorn: “Where were you unicorn for the those in the church in Charleston?…Where were you unicorn as Trayvon opened the rainbow Skittles?” From rainbow curls to the rainbow Skittles that were in teenager Trayvon Martin’s pocket when he was shot dead; the swerve is breathtaking – underscoring a point that is a major theme of her work: How loathe Americans are to face the grim realities in our society. Finley has a method beneath her work’s apparent madness; an art to her seeming random self-indulgence.
“Gratitude” takes an even harsher swerve. Finley has changed into a blonde wig and a pantsuit, and she begins by expressing her gratitude in ludicrous ways – “I am so grateful – not that I am great – but I am great full – full of greatness – gratitude is my attitude.” Hillary Clinton is not just speaking to her supporters; she appears to be talking to Bill Clinton too, and then Bill Clinton seems to be speaking, and Finley’s piece launches graphically into former President Clinton’s infidelities and a certain notorious stained blue dress.
Finley changes once again for “Mystery,” into a Make America Great Again cap and an absurd hairpiece, and recites what sounds like verbatim sentences from Donald Trump, although they take on an antic tone. She soon transitions once again into the obscenely surreal, where Trump is lascivious, needy and literally girlish. (“My hair is Faye Dunaway’s running away in Bonnie and Clyde…I am platinum blonde…I am Eva Marie Saint kissing Cary Grant on the train, Grace Kelly’s close up, Kim Novak in Vertigo…”)
The final transformation feels like an epilogue. Karen Finley changes in front of us this time; she turns from one of her caricatures into the actual red-haired Karen Finley, in an elegant dress. And her final poem is about a woman who likes having sex with veterans. “She…was with men who would die for her…she was worth dying for. “
If it’s hard to call what Karen Finley does in “Unicorn Gratitude Mystery” political theater, her provocations resonate with surprising power.
Unicorn Gratitude Mystery
Laurie Beechman Theater in the West Bank Cafe
Written, directed and performed by Karen Finley
Costumes designed by Violet Overn
Lighting and sound design by Kristopher Anton
Running time: 90 minutes
“Unicorn Gratitude Mystery” runs on Sundays through September 18