Karen Finley’s latest work is The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery. It’s recently been presented by La MaMa as part of its Downtown Icons Series. And that’s suitable: Ms. Finley has been the very picture of downtown theater for decades.
In the 1990’s she was one of the NEA Four, performers whose NEA grants were canceled for violating “general standards of decency”. Ms. Finley took the government to court. The case finally ended up before the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the government.
The set for this production is really cool, cluttered, with music stands and a small table, all draped with fabric, and fabric hung like laundry, fabric hanging on the wall. There are two versions of The Unicorn in Captivity, and unicorn bric-a-brac.
As she has so often in the past, Ms. Finley performs solo, reading from a script, generally unbridled, sometimes in a harsh whisper, sometimes hysterical. She makes no attempt to impersonate people. The writing is inconsistent, self-contradictory, consistently surprising, its point of view constantly shifting.
She opens with a long prose poem about unicorns, and the mythical beast is an ambiguous, not to say slippery, symbol: “The unicorn is here. The unicorn is there.”… “There is no job too small for the unicorn because even without hands the unicorn will get the job done.”… “The unicorn attended Montesorri.”… “Shut the fuck up, unicorn!”
She moves on to present Hillary Clinton: “After I was beaten, I do not remember any of it.”… “I am the best at forgiving because nobody can forgive like I forgive.”… “I don’t like Hillary but I am Hillary and I just don’t like the way she talks.”
In the show’s best moment, she talks about Monica Lewinsky’s famous “cobalt blue” dress. Then she takes a huge piece of blue fabric and, with the help of stage hands, spreads it over the heads of the entire audience. It’s a brilliant stage metaphor for the public’s obsession with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
Next, she morphs into no less a personage than Donald Trump: “Don’t touch my hair. Don’t touch my junk.”… “It was about running against Hillary.”… “I took up where Bill let go.” The scene ends with the line “Who’s wearing the blue dress now?”
The final segment of the performance is quite brief, and so different from the earlier ones that it seems to be from another show. The unrestrained messiness of the earlier segments, so typical of Ms. Finley’s work, is gone, and she reads in a refined voice, not even suggesting a character. The material concerns a woman who picks up veterans. Here is a man who would die for her, she writes. “They will die yet they walk around as if they own the whole god damn world!”
When I interviewed her in 1999, Ms. Finley said “If you're just eaten a hot dog, you just want to keep that bun white. You don't want some seven-grain bun hand-made from sprouted wheat - you want to have the bun.” She’s remained true to that minimalist vision with her one-performer show. She’s still a unique, brash, enormously creative stage presence.