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Wednesday, Dec 17 1997
Beyond Rage
The American Chestnut. Written and performed by Karen Finley. At Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th Street), Dec. 4-14. Call 621-7797.

"It's important for the child to adore something the parent hates," Karen Finley said, explaining her purchase of a Barney stroller. From the New York performance artist who jammed candied yams up her butt as one of the notorious "NEA Four" to the single parent living in the country with her mother, Finley highlighted the ironies of her identity shift to good comic effect. Unfortunately, the maturing Finley hasn't quite discovered the performance form to match her new life.

The American Chestnut, her latest piece of multimedia performance art, combined slide projections, live video, film, spoken word, and a dollhouse as she layered stories about blighted plants, monologues about motherhood, and trancelike laments involving violence, suffering, and oppression. But there were so many styles vying for focus that Finley's bold, vitriolic voice often receded like the taste of the fruit in an overspiced pie.

In part, the performance suffered from mistakes that no performer as experienced as Finley should make. In the subtler stories about the small-town lives of two women, she read so fast as to be unintelligible. That she did it sitting upstage, dwarfed by 20-foot projections and with her back to her audience, was simply exasperating.

Amid this chaotic melange lurked visionary morsels. In a fantasy about visiting an art museum that had been turned into a church and a mall, the clerk intoned: "This is a place of worship, a place of making fun of people, a place of trying on shoes." In another scene, Finley threw shadows of her legs onto a screen where her face was projected, riffing about the creation of a male lingerie store, "Victor's Secrets." "I want something that calls attention to a man's scrotum," she seethed. Channeling a society-whipped Hillary Clinton, she broke down weeping her litany of regrets: "I'm sorry, America: I don't care about my hair. I'm sorry, America, that I'm smarter than Bill."

Passionate, self-righteous, and unpredictable, Finley's work is difficult to talk about precisely because it isn't trying to be theater. There's no fourth wall, no pretense of acting technique, and no character coherence. She habitually confronts those furtive few who dare to walk out on her show. On the night I went, it was an older couple. "I guess you had enough," Finley threw up her hands. "Only 10 minutes and already you're bored." Later in the show, the computer went down; Finley continued to call for cues until a techie explained the problem. And then Finley transformed a technical disaster into magic. "Wow," she trilled, suddenly jubilant. "We're being haunted right now. A couple of nights ago I was watching Boogie Nights and there was a spirit right next to me. It was a short spirit. This piece is about my friend Dino who died of AIDS, and every night the spirits are getting more ... active."

The spectacle of a woman so involved in the mystery of her subject matter -- not its appearance -- is both the bane and boon of Finley's work. That night her disarming response burned through the haze of her muddled performance and suddenly she became clear, generous, and painfully vivid. And in that moment, I remembered: Performance art is not bratty no-technique theater, but a country all its own, where the spirit of the imagination roams -- for better and for worse -- without rehearsal.

-- Carol Lloyd

Family Ties
An African-American Antigone. Directed by Keith Grier. Starring Haninah Abdullah, Sharon Jamerson, and Robert Fisher. At A Black Box Theater, 50A Bannam Place (between Union and Green), through Dec. 21. Call 775-4291.

What makes the surviving ancient plays great has nothing to do with their material; the Greeks probably saw thousands of terrible shows tediously narrated by choruses that dealt with Olympian gods and toga-wearing heroes. Oedipus Rex and friends survive because they rest on simple human principles. But the ideas are sometimes so simple that audiences in future generations can easily miss them, if they're distracted by the costumes. So updating ancient plays takes a rare sense of what's costume and what isn't; it requires the careful eye of a tailor, to make sure the new clothes fit.

An African-American Antigone is ill-fitting and uneven, and not even because the old principles have been misunderstood. It's the new material that's been cut wrong. The old Antigone is about Oedipus' daughter, who defies Creon by building a funeral pyre for the body of her disgraced and blinded father. It's about a strong woman defying the dictates of an unjust city-state. An African-American Antigone is about a similar woman, but this time she's the daughter of Malcolm X, forbidden in a Christian country from giving her assassinated father a Muslim burial. This never happened, first of all. No one related to Martin Luther King Jr. ever tried to keep Malcolm's family from burying the Muslim leader. But here Creon is King's son-in-law, a smooth Christian minister with a proud head, and the drama that revolves around his personal objection to Malcolm's funeral feels tendentious, false.

The idea is that Malcolm's memory has been abused in America, because Christian ideals like King's are easier to swallow than Malcolm's Islam. This is true enough, and deserves a serious debate. But recutting recent history to make it look like ancient myth is not a serious debate: It sheds no light on Malcolm and fails to update Sophocles. And since it's not believable, it isn't gripping. There may be glimmers of truth in the speeches about hubris that Creon recites -- plenty of Christian leaders, in spite of their dogma, have been guilty of pride -- but the glimmers can't save the concept, any more than director Keith Grier's understated and honest stand-in performance as Haemon on the night I attended could quite rescue the show. It's a shame, because recent African-American history has its share of drama to rival the Greeks'; An African-American Antigone just doesn't capture it.


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