Performance artist Karen Finley is angry, topical, and provocative in her new show Unicorn Gratitude Mystery. She’s also hilariously funny. At the Laurie Beechman Theatre the other night, Finley turned commonplaces inside-out, skewering brittle cultural touchstones to the roaring delight of an audience tremendously pleased to be in on the joke. Gratitude journals and Donald Trump may be easy prey for someone with Finley’s arts and smarts, but she continues to find new, sometimes startling angles of analysis and attack.
Over several monologues Finley marches from the abstract and impersonal (the kitsch-spirituality embodied by the unicorn) to the specific and all-too-real (the Trump phenomenon). At the heart of the whole sequence lies an indictment of the infantilization of not only popular culture but, now more than ever, the political class.
A porcelain unicorn poised on a display table aptly represents the show’s themes, as imaginary and fragile as the command asserted by the new-age hucksters, war propagandists, and politicians she lampoons with her satiric laser.
A “gratitude” character x-rays the platitudes of the age of self-help, hissing insistent and finally meaningless thanks through clenched teeth, and owning up frankly (this is Finley’s fantasy, remember) to the “seething self-contempt” underneath.
“We know that the most popular female character is a victim,” declares another persona. A legendary exploder of female (and other) characters, Finley picks a bruising fight with the gender politics of the current presidential race. Viewing it through the lens of the history of Bill and Hillary Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, she gives us a bit of the raw flip side of the loving account of the couple’s life story that Bill delivered at the Democratic National Convention.
Effortlessly, it seems, this leads her to a giddy vision of the angry, frustrated baby that she sees operating the mouth and limbs of The Donald. It’s a titanic piece. Early in her career Finley was known for nudity on stage, among other things. Today she’s stripping others naked. An anti-war plea, just as powerful, closes the show, performed in a stripped-down (not literally) persona that reads as Finley’s real self.
Karen Finley may paint with a broad brush her conclusions about the psychology of Trump, the Clintons, and our culture’s hordes of believers in easy answers. But the paint is red-hot as ever. And judging from the audience response, her devoted New York City fans are feeling the burn.
Karen Finley’s Unicorn Gratitude Mystery plays Sunday nights through September 4 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre.