A Certain Level of Denial by Karen Finley. National Theatre, St Kilda, Friday February 11, 1994.
If the roof of St Kilda's National Theatre had collapsed on Friday night, Melbourne would have lost a sizeable percentage of its avant-garde and artistic intelligentsia in one hit. And the world would have lost Karen Finley: performance artist, gender terrorist and ethical evangelist.
Karen Finley's first Australian performances are of one of her least contentious shows. That's not to say that Finley is mellowing, quite the contrary. Her attacks are increasingly urgent and focussed. She continues to rail against apathy, ignorance, hypocrisy and institutionalised hatred: of women, of gays, of the homeless and of the sick.
Absent, though, are the most controversial and least understood elements of recent New York shows in which Finley smeared her body with sweet-potato whip and ranted about castrating Wall Street stockbrokers and feeding choc-coated testicles to their eldest sons as Easter treats.
It's quite possible, too, that Australian audiences might have misinterpreted Finley's usual portrait of America's WASPish double-thinking middle-classes as a lurid caricature instead of an incisive critique, so unfamiliar is the magnitude of the gap between the empowered and the disempowered in the USA...
Increasingly, Finley's work concerns itself with AIDS and death. This decrease in scope brings with it an increase in density, coherence and authority.
A Certain Level of Denial isn't subversion, it's insurrection. It begins with Finley naked but for shoes and a hat. She stands between three empty slide-projectors which are trained on her. It is impossible for us to objectify her. Apart from the heaving of her breathing and the slight sway of her head and shoulders, she is motionless.
She intones her first monologue (about trendy East Villagers with rich parents) in a voice half way between a chant and a yell. It is insistent, unremitting, harrowing. She settles into an arcing but aggressive oratorical cadence. She captures the same kind of quaver one hears in Jesse Jackson's voice when he's striving to be Martin Luther King.
This is the first of many such raves. They are so overpowering it is tempting to discount the handful of quiet moments: Finley's placid first chat with her audience - still naked - from a high canvas chair; the simulated discussion with her white-male-liberal 'shrink'; and the eloquent coda in which she carries off a robe which has been transfigured into a "quilt of suffering" and an emaciated dead body.
There is much more to a Karen Finley performance than the often-shocking monologues and the projections of her striking drawings. Finley doesn't 'act' in the conventional sense of the word. She connects with her work utterly. She becomes the women and men whose stories she relates. In doing so, she forces us to scrutinise and reassess our shared codes of morality.
A slightly shortened version of this review was published in The Age, Monday February 14, 1994.