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A Perfect Victim


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Karen Finley

at Edge of the Lookingglass

October 4-8

Karen Finley's A Constant State of Desire is like a seance, with Finley acting the medium extraordinaire. Finley delivers a series of monologues--for lack of a better term--in a feverish, incantatory cadence meant to evoke the spirits of the characters described. But she does not seem interested in bringing them to theatrical "life" as fully rounded psychological beings. Instead Finley the performer is present throughout, letting the words of her characters--at times funny, bitter, horrifying, brutal--spill out as urgently as if she's been possessed.

And just as in a seance, you can't quite let go of the suspicion that the entire event might be a well-rehearsed snow job. You want to believe, to be caught up, but at the same time you're constantly on the lookout for the telltale giveaway. This tension, however, makes A Constant State of Desire enormously powerful, as Finley subverts the relationship between medium and audience. Instead of wanting to make us believe, she shows us how everything is a lie, blowing traditional theatrical masking all to hell. At the same time she performs with such intensity that, paradoxically, all the artifice disappears.

She even began the show four times, all the while ironically acknowledging that she could only really start the show once. The first three times seemed like charming "planned accidents": she came onstage, welcomed us, chatted about starting the show, then left the stage and reentered to "start the show." The fourth restart offered a genuine surprise, when Finley suddenly noticed a police officer standing at the side of the stage. After refusing to continue until he left, she gave us a sly grin and said, "He probably heard I'm the girl with the yams," a reference to another piece in which she stuffs yams in various orifices.

When she began again the fourth time, she launched into her first monologue with such intensity and concentration--her eyes closed and her feet tapping in unconscious rhythm with her speech--that I suddenly found myself in the middle of something, unable to believe that just seconds before she had announced, "OK, I'm going to start now." This first section, "Strangling Baby Birds," reveals a woman who dreams of just such grotesque activity. She also dreams of hanging out an open fifth-story window in the middle of winter. These dreams, Finley tells us, are important to "the doctors," the same doctors who anesthetized her when she gave birth.

This image perfectly encapsulates A Constant State of Desire. A woman in the midst of a miracle is rendered numb, robbed of any authentic feeling, by faceless authority. Intelligently, Finley does not specify the doctors' gender, although most of us would probably think doctors were male. These doctors are threatening not necessarily because they are men but because they have the power to separate a woman from her body and from natural feeling. Thus Finley avoids the juvenile male bashing that Oprah Winfrey and her ilk exploit so easily and profitably and instead focuses on a system that steals from women the ability to explore their own sexuality on their own terms. (Indeed, Finley's character explains that the doctors stole from her the "sexual feelings" that she should have experienced during childbirth, feelings that are rarely acknowledged--even as a possibility--by our culture.)

Taken one step further, this image becomes not just horrifying but infuriating. Finley tells us that the woman cannot blame the doctors for what they have done to her but blames herself--for "the way she projects her femininity." As happens too often in our culture, the woman here can see only herself as the cause of her own humiliation, becoming the perpetrator as well as the victim.

This perverse attitude toward one's own responsibility runs throughout the piece, as Finley shows us in the next section, "Enter Entrepreneur." Here are portraits of several women, all of them fundamentally powerless. A refined middle-class woman asks her equally refined friend, "Do you enjoy your women's-studies classes?" To which the friend replies, "I love finding out the reasons why I'm in this situation right now." There's the woman whose husband defecates profusely whenever they have sex, forcing her to line the entire bedroom with Hefty garbage bags. And there's the five-year-old girl, sitting naked in the refrigerator, one hand in the ketchup and one hand in the mustard, while her father, pretending to play a game, rapes the girl repeatedly with all the vegetables that her mother had bought for that night's salad.

A Constant State of Desire might be simply horrible and exploitive were it not for Finley's two great strengths. First, no matter how grotesque the image, it has been carefully constructed to be full of resonance. Food, for example, takes on an almost sexual meaning and urgency. The girl being raped in the refrigerator is characterized not only as a piece of food herself--covered with condiments--but she is being violated by food. "Is it any wonder," she asks, "that now I'm one big digestive disorder?" In the third and final section, "The Father in All of Us," Finley stands behind a three-layer wedding cake and smears white frosting into her hair, making herself appear old. Meanwhile she tells of a woman desirous of "a religious experience" turning to Gourmet magazine. Such images are packed with associations, especially considering our culture's preoccupation with diet pills, weight-loss programs, and low-calorie desserts, as well as a hundred other "personal" products intended to help women attain the perfect (male-created) feminine form.

Second, Finley never allows us to empathize with her characters. We're trained, as audience members, to be "moved" by another's tragedy. That's one of the reasons we pay to see theater. And it is exactly this exploitive relationship that Finley discourages. Her delivery is fast, furious, half-crazed at times, and always confrontational; she never allows us to "feel with" her characters. She gives us no release, no theatrical gratification, but instead makes us witness suffering that we could never--and should never presume to--fully understand. Certainly this makes her work difficult to some, and offensive to others. But this novel method may be necessary in the era of Geraldo Rivera, whose cameras regularly and callously humiliate other human beings in the quest for "understanding."

Not only would few theaters in town go near this piece, but few would give it the professional attention it got at Edge of the Lookingglass. By mounting the piece in their comfortable, well-equipped theater, they demonstrated their generosity toward one of America's most controversial--some would say obscene--performance artists. Members of the Lookingglass Theater Ensemble even worked as stage crew for Finley. When was the last time you saw artists devote themselves so graciously to another artist's work?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dona Ann McAdams.

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