Lost in Suburbia With Karen Finley

Karen Finley-who has done more to close down the National Endowment for the Arts than Senator Jesse Helms could have wished for in his wildest dreams-is best known as the performance artist who smeared her naked body with chocolate. I’m sorry I missed it.

She has also been known to shove yams up her ass. I don’t know how I feel about that. As a good friend of mine asks: “Why yams?”

Then again, why not? It’s obvious-all too obvious-that there are no boundaries in the consciously shocking art of Karen Finley. Now 41, she is said to have mellowed a bit. The yams are behind her. Her so-called outrageousness isn’t a particular concern of mine, however. Crudeness matters more, and whether she’s as good as some claim matters the most.

Her new one-woman show, The American Chestnut , downtown at Performance Space 122, is my first experience of Ms. Finley’s howl on behalf of oppressed womanhood and others. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, and I enjoy the feeling. We don’t go to the theater, ideally, for the known and comfortable, to have confirmed everything we already know. Nor do we go to the theater to experience only what Mr. Helms approves, God help us all.

Or to the theater even I “approve.” The critic isn’t judge and jury, but an advocate. “This is what I like-do you?” “This isn’t so hot, alas-how about you?”

So much for complex esthetics. Ms. Finley’s new performance piece isn’t so hot. The American Chestnut is named after the tree cursed with a disease that kills it before it can mature. The tree battles to overcome-just as Ms. Finley battles against the social ills of America. But her show began badly.

She entered through the audience vacuuming the aisles in a wedding dress-a comment, I guess, on newlywed domesticity, marital entrapment, or the house-proud. It was O.K. until the Dustbuster broke down. These were among the slightly embarrassing moments when the uninitiated earnestly ask, “Is it part of the show?” But a number of things were to go blithely wrong later, and they obviously weren’t deliberate. For instance, Ms. Finley couldn’t find a costume at one point. But it didn’t seem to matter much. She stepped out of character and disappeared backstage to emerge after a while wearing nothing but an apron, which was more or less as good as anything else.

Or so it seemed. When something goes wrong during a Karen Finley performance, it is and it isn’t part of the show. It doesn’t bother her, but it bothers me. This is obviously because I’m a perfectionist. As I see theater, it’s just a little sloppy, that’s all, to forget your costumes, misplace a few props, knock over the video camera and blow the opening of your show that’s about the unacceptable face of American culture.

The haphazard, the accidental happening, can make a thrilling improvisation. But not so here. Ms. Finley stops and starts, stops and starts, as if not quite prepared. She reads a good deal of the show from a script.

She isn’t a good reader, but let it pass. Some of our best actors are poor readers. But is Ms. Finley’s The American Chestnut a reading? Partly a reading? A fitful work-in-progress? Or a real performance ? It was first seen two years ago at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Are we entitled to wonder why she doesn’t know her own script by now? We are entitled.

I couldn’t always hear what she was saying. Nor could others. Performance Space 122 is an intimate one, yet there were long stretches-particularly when she was reading-when we couldn’t hear her clearly. Stories and poems about misogynistic tyranny, homophobia and the genteel pleasures of gardening were mostly lost on me. One catches-and ought to feel privileged to catch-what one can. Yet it’s understandable to think: “Speak up, dear! Project!” In such irritating ways, Ms. Finley can turn a libertarian into a disapproving, half-deaf old fusspot.

On the other hand, she shrieks. Her basic style is neurotic stridency and rage, which leads to peculiar voice changes, ranging from her own flat Midwestern, to a kind of whinnying, to a visceral uncontrolled scream, to a deep neo-Southern black imitation that has no logic. At one point, a loony in the street outside could be heard competing with the apparent loony inside. Ms. Finley is the raw-edged shaman of the fringe-raging about Bosnia and AIDS, Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart, censorship and female oppression, and where is God when we need Him or Her.

And all of this is fine and worthy and important, no doubt. But the age-old battles grow weary, the parodies of male sexism familiar, the disjointed feminist manifesto labored. There’s a surprising domesticity and whimsy-tales of problematic breast-feedings, a re-evaluation of Winnie-the-Pooh. (Ms. Finley, the 80’s hipster, now has a 4-year-old daughter.) “In her free time,” The New York Times was eager to point out recently, “she straps her daughter into a car seat and takes her for a drive in her Ford Explorer, ‘like any other suburban mother.'”

Hey-ho. What with all the work to be done around the house, “scrubbing the tub, vacuuming, mowing the lawn,” it’s a wonder the suburban mom ever finds time to strip for her show. The Times ‘ cloying normalization of Ms. Finley annoys us as much as her connivance in it. She’s a limited performer whose remembered pain is real enough. She is sincere, but intellectually slack. Her use of video is self-consciously amateur. (She’s telling us she isn’t slick and superficial, but “real.”) I could have lived without the video image of deformed feet; also, the home movie of her lactating onto a painterly canvas.

But if her outrageousness once shocked America, we’ve gotten used to it. Her language is explicit, but no cruder than the fuck-you’s of our charming street life. Her use of the C-word is cathartic. It’s her nakedness that palls. Ms. Finley deliberately neutralizes her sexuality by treating her own naked body on stage as matter-of-fact, like performing in a nudist colony. What a bore: Bodies are sexy, aren’t they? So are real, live people, I assume.

Yet no performer flashes more than the desexed Ms. Finley. And what sort of feminism is that? At one point, she sat on a small stool with her ample bare bum displayed for all to view at their leisure. Why?

Why yams? Why not?

She was telling a story, seated with her back toward the audience at the time, which concluded with the ludicrous revelation, “She learned that humor and humiliation are very similar.”

Now, you and I know they aren’t. Humor and humiliation are very different, unless one happens to relish the performance art of Don Rickles. But if Karen Finley doesn’t see the difference, there’s nothing we can do, concerned though we all are about the blight on American chestnut trees.