By Ryan Hugh McWilliams
Sometimes those age-old sayings that everyone repeats ad nauseam actually ring true. The cliché, “Never meet your heroes,” slapped me in the face with disappointment at The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery at La Mama. The show, written and performed by artist and free-speech legend Karen Finley, is an experimental, non-linear, spoken word piece exploring our current political climate. Unfortunately, it is an eighty-minute, frenetic, one-note show with mile-a-minute dialogue that provides few revelations and says very little that anyone who’s glimpsed the news over the past six months couldn’t suss out for themselves.
I adore Karen Finley. Her collection of writing, performance texts, and art, A Different Kind of Intimacy, should be read by anyone interested in her work and the avant-garde. Back in the day, when people had to search the library and read books for their history instead of Googling for instant enlightenment, I poured over old video tapes and dusty tomes devoted to the performance art and theatre of the late 20th century. Few stories caught my attention more than the controversial work of Karen Finley, her AIDS activism, and her involvement as one part of the notorious NEA Four. As the story goes: in a performance entitled, We Keep Our Victims Ready, exploring the story of Tawana Brawley—a young woman who alleged that police officers raped her then smeared her with feces—Finley covered her naked body in chocolate sauce, red candy hearts (“after a woman is treated like shit she becomes more lovable”), and then bean sprouts to symbolize semen. She became known as “the chocolate-smeared woman.”
Angered by Andre Serrano’s “Piss Christ” and Robert Mapplethorpe’s cancelled Corcoran show a year earlier, this act of physically representing such violence against women onstage instead of just describing it pissed off conservative politicians even more. They demanded a restructuring of how the National Endowment for the Arts awarded its grants, and four existing awards were vetoed and their funding was revoked. Finley sued the NEA to have their funding reinstated along with the other censored artists, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, and John Fleck. They won their original case, but it was then challenged by the Clinton administration, leading the Supreme Court to overturn the decision and uphold this new “Decency Clause” in the funding of public art.
At a time when today’s political reality is even more volatile, I was thrilled to finally see Karen Finley live and began counting down the days to the show. I might have hyped it up too much in my mind. The piece begins with Finley entering in a unicorn costume to her dance track, “Tales of Taboo,” inviting the audience onstage to groove to the lyrics, “You don’t own me, bastard. You fucking asshole. You wanna suck my pussy? Well let me suck your dick. Suck your dick, bastard bitch.” This might have been the most controversial portion of the evening. After the dance party breaking the fourth wall, Finley begins to cry hysterically, “Oh no. The reality hits me, the horror. Fuck health care! I couldn’t get frisée. There’s no frisée. No frisée at the Union Market. What am I gonna do for the weekend? Somebody help me please! I spend $5,600 on a studio and I can’t get any frisée?!?” This hysteria sets the tone for the rest of the piece.
What follows next is an over-wrought description of the concept of the unicorn, not-so-subtly masked as a metaphor for the white-privileged millennials and do-gooder yuppies who believe they’re an entitled, singular phenomenon. Not so original, but the rare achievement of making a point in this show. “The unicorn has a reality show with no lines to memorize. The unicorn understands cinema. The unicorn does not like Styrofoam under any circumstances. Since the unicorn doesn’t exist they never need to worry about identity theft, deleted emails, or waiting for the G train. Or anything for that matter. The unicorn likes its kale massage, please! Was the unicorn there for Sandra Bland? Where were you unicorn for those in the church in Charleston? Where were you unicorn as Trayvon opened the rainbow Skittles? When will you show up unicorn?” After all the frivolous dialogue beforehand, this walks a very fine line of name dropping for effect.
“I think I need my gratitude apron.” After Finley enters dressed as a mussed up Hillary and puts on an apron made of postcards from thankful fans, she begins a gratitude rant. “I am beyond so grateful, in a way that is beyond my ability to express the gratitude that is here now in this room. I am grateful, not that I am great, but I am grateful. Full of greatness, because gratitude is my attitude… I continue to be grateful even when you kick me in the face. Even when you talk behind my back at least I am in your thoughts.” It is difficult to tell if Finley is mocking Hillary and her penchant for “apologizing” that she was a female presidential candidate or that we still live in a world where it is demanded of her to apologize. This monologue is the most fully fleshed out piece of the evening, and almost leaves you reeling.
Monica Lewinsky gets dragged into this next. In a throwback moment, some form of white liquid is smeared on a blue dress and it feels reductive in this context, almost childish, and adds nothing to the dialogue. Afterwards, while Finley changes costumes for the next scene, a video plays by a YouTube crafter demonstrating how to make a unicorn stress ball out of various items. Somehow this becomes the highlight of the show and reveals how we’re a wasteful, consumer-minded society, with short attention spans and lack of imagination. Everyone thought it was hilarious.
Lastly, Finley emerges as a tangerine Trump in a MAGA hat and naked Barbie doll boa. A mostly unintelligible, screaming rant follows that demonstrates the hysteria he spewed on the campaign trail, but it is ear-piercing and almost unwatchable. With everyone doing Trump impressions today, we should leave it to the professionals.
The show ends with monologue devoted to veterans and war. “I see so many men working, working, working, working, but not loving. A man is raised to die. A man is raised that his body isn’t for life; it’s for death, for protecting. In all cultures the man is to be prepared to die, to give his life if necessary… A being raised to die and living with it! That’s it! That was the turn on for her: that men-boys are essentially raised to be worthless. But their bodies, their lives are nothing meaningless. That they can, will die for their country. They’ll die. They’ll die for oil. They’ll die for the economy. They’ll die for the flag.” This cycle of life and death, war and peace, brings some relevancy back into the piece and is a powerful ending to an otherwise troublesome show.
I can’t help but wonder who this piece was intended for, maybe a performance providing catharsis for Finley herself? I highly doubt there wasn’t a seat filled without a left-leaning liberal in the audience. Then what was the point? At time when we are so divided and the system is crashing down around us, it would be more beneficial to figure out how we can have a meaningful dialogue and find something that brings us together rather than continuously dissect the monstrosity that was the stolen election. Maybe I was looking for answers where there are none. Maybe I just didn’t get it; maybe I wasn’t supposed to like it. Some did, a woman in front of me uttered “genius” after the Monica portion, I wish I could have believed the same. Till then I look forward to Finley’s next piece.
The Expanded Unicorn Gratitude Mystery runs this Friday 5/12 and Saturday 5/13 at 9:30PM and Sunday 5/14 at 6PM at La Mama on 66 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue & The Bowery.