"I'm not a very good actress," Karen Finley said self-deprecatingly after flubbing lines on opening night of her new show. Not true. Perhaps the best-known performance artist of her generation, internationally acclaimed for pioneering edgy, outspoken, darkly humorous pieces that unfold with the startling unpredictability and spontaneity of jazz, Finley's one of the finest actors around. While her current offering, Wake Up!, has a work-in-progress feel — she reads some passages; others are memorized — her ability to reach deep within to a subconscious knowingness that spills out like the cries of a modern-day shamanic oracle is far more compelling than many perfectly polished one-woman shows. There's no slickness here. Theatrical convention is trounced. She breaks concentration suddenly and stomps downstage, demanding someone remove distracting earrings. She complains about an annoying dressing-room incident and then continues where she left off. What we are seeing is an artist at work — raw, in the moment, like DeKooning flinging paint on his canvas in a state of pure, animalistic expression.
In her intro to two thematically related companion pieces, Finley embodies a woman who's aroused by men willing to die or send their sons to die in war. It's a deeply unsettling exploration of the primal male-female sexual dynamic underlying the Republican right's pro-war patriotism. Then, donning a red-white-and-blue jacket, she sits upstage and flips though her drawings, which are projected on a backdrop, for the surreal, conversational "Dreams of Laura Bush," in which the politics of passive feminine power are skewered in a blend of off-color humor and repressed desire.
For "The Passion of Terri Schiavo," Finley comes downstage wearing a glitzed-up Navy jacket and lets loose with a profoundly disturbing stream-of-consciousness riff on the complex right-to-die battle that galvanized the country. Morphing between religious fanatics who saw Schiavo as a Christ figure, Schiavo's husband's personal agony, her mother's unfathomable sorrow, the thousands of strangers for whom the vegetative woman became a symbol of hope and love, and pro-life right-wing extremists, Finley approaches a trancelike state, becoming a conduit for our nation's divided soul. If only she'd do Medea, Gertrude, Lady Macbeth, or Clytemnestra.
Presented by the Green Room
at the Theatres at 45 Bleecker/The Green Room, 45 Bleecker St., NYC.
Oct. 21-Nov. 18. Sun., 7 p.m.
(212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or www.telecharge.com.