An authoritative voice booms over the loudspeaker, welcoming the audience to the evening’s performance by Holly Hughes. “Ms. Hughes,” it blares, “is the author of several pieces, but is no doubt best known as one of the NEA Four.” Then, like a scratched LP or a nasty third grader, the voice repeats, “best known as one of the NEA Four, NEA Four, NEA Four, NEA Four, NEA Four.” The taunts continue until Ms. Hughes draws a pistol and shoots the p.a.
Poor Holly Hughes, even her technical equipment berates her. Though her one-woman show Preaching to the Perverted aims at eschewing self-pity, it would take a very hardened heart not to sympathize. Hughes is indeed best known as one of the NEA Four, the quartet of defunded performance artists who sued the NEA claiming its so-called decency clause violated the First Amendment. The four—Hughes, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, and Jon Fleck —won the initial case and an appeal, but lost in a Supreme Court decision last year.
Like most solo performers, Hughes knows how to milk life experiences for all they’re worth, churning out a creamy concoction of anecdotes humorous and pathetic. But this time around the milk seems slightly soured, for despite considerable energy and verve, Hughes has crafted a piece unequal to her obvious talents. A sprightly performer in white button-down shirt, black capris, flats, and a pixie cut, Hughes ingratiates herself immediately. You want to cheer for her, laugh with her, defend her from that mean loudspeaker. You want to be her friend. That doesn’t mean, however, that you like her show as much.
Surrounded by the detritus of confetti, streamers, and various Fourth of July paraphernalia, Hughes tells the story of her final day in court—peppering her tale with scenes from her Michigan childhood and early days as a performance artist. She’s frequently hilarious and just as often savvy, particularly in comparing the Supreme Court to a theater and her appellate hearing to a show. She recounts going to “check out the space,” having her lawyer put her “on the list” for tickets, and how friends—upset that the hearing had “sold out”—asked her to use her pull to get them in.
But Hughes falters when she veers away from this kicky, ironic tone and adopts a more somber, pedantic one. In one such instance, she describes a Kiwanis father-daughter banquet in Michigan in the ’70s and imagines herself as the vanilla ice cream on her plate, nestled beside the Salisbury steak—”All of us are cold, hard, white like the ice cream. We do not melt.” Perhaps Hughes ought to try another flavor.
The direction, by Lois Weaver, presents further problems. Though the use of voice-overs is effective, Weaver might have interwoven them more seamlessly into the narrative and streamlined that narrative. Also, the moments when Hughes is made to show rage—demonstrated in her pummeling of several innocent cardboard boxes—feel contrived.
Certainly Hughes has an important tale to tell, and, to her credit, the political humor she employs rarely feels tired. But the best moments find her treating gravity lightly, approaching her narrative with a wry smile and a raised brow: equating a Beanie Baby with child porn, apologizing for having mislaid the gay agenda, singing “I Will Survive” in a fright wig with a personal massager for a microphone. Who needs decency when you’ve got that much style?