Back in the 18th century, visitors could pay a fee to enter London’s Bethlem Hospital and be entertained by the “antics” of the mentally ill Bedlam patients. I could not get this uncomfortable factoid out of my mind as I was watching Karen Finley in her new performance, Wake Up!. The dungeon-y atmosphere of 45 Bleecker’s basement space no doubt had something to do with it. But unlike other times I’ve seen Finley, her personal demeanor during this performance struck me as, well, a little bit nuts.
Not that there’s anything so unusual about Wake Up! itself, a minor Finley work that consists primarily of two pieces, The Dreams of Laura Bush and The Passion of Terri Schiavo. In the first, Finley sits at a desk, which has a video camera pointing down on its top. Adopting a kooky Laura Bush persona, Finley talks about Laura’s surreal White House dreams while displaying the amateurish pictures she’s drawn of them, images the camera projects onto a large screen for the audience to see. These dreams have their amusing bits—she conjures an anti-immigrant border fence designed by Richard Serra, for example—but after a while their random surrealness (and political predictability) grows a bit tiresome.
The Passion of Terri Schiavo is a more classic Finley effort, and the better section. Using her familiar incantatory vocal style, Finley revisits the Schiavo story from several conflicting points of view, focusing on how people with varying agendas claimed to speak for a woman who could not speak for herself. Finley seems to even indict herself in this piece, which manages to capture the sad morass of that episode in sometimes moving ways. Finley ends the segment in tears.
But Finley’s behavior colored the Wake Up! performance I attended in an unappealing manner. She began the piece twice: She started, then took a mulligan and began again, explaining that before the show she’d been unnerved by a building tenant who appeared backstage looking for the boiler. Fine, but later she abruptly stopped the show two more times, unpleasantly accusing someone in the audience of video-recording her. Walking into the crowd to confront the pirating perp, she discovered that the suspicious flickers she’d seen were merely a woman’s earrings reflecting the stage light. Together, these episodes significantly undermined Finley’s intended performance—they made me feel like I was stuck in a room with a paranoiac, a claustrophobic atmosphere I was only too happy to escape at show’s end.