KPBS AIRDATE: MAY 20, 1998
So, have you heard this one? “How many performance artists does it take to screw in a light bulb? I don’t know. I left at intermission.”
Karen Finley must’ve heard it, too, cause “The American Chestnut,” her nearly 2-hour show at the Museum of Contemporary Art last weekend, went straight through, non-stop. Though it didn’t stop my friend from bolting, unable to take another second of the ranting and raving. I stayed; I had to. But my friend said when she got to the lobby, there were lots of guys out there, waiting for their loved ones to be done hearing the diatribe.
I feel for Karen Finley. I feel her pain. As one of the infamous NEA Four, she had her career seriously damaged by Sen. Jesse Helms. Yeah, okay. But get over it. Move on. This is the 21st century, chick. Get a life. Performance art of the screaming, shrieking, in-your-face, offend-all-you-can brutalizing variety is over….
You know, Karen, you’ve really got a lot to say about women. About abuse. About America’s underdogs. Even about Martha Stewart. And, in your more controlled moments, you were hilarious on Hillary Clinton. But your stuff reads better than it plays. Is your intent to make the potentially battered feel battered? Well, you succeeded. I don’t really wanna see a video of deformed, formerly bound feet. Or a baby being born. Or bloody worms being cut with a knife. I don’t wanna see your naked butt again and again (though I liked the film clip of you running through the La Jolla Museum, nudely shadowing Giacomettis and other sculptures). Please. Don’t screech your pain. It only gives me one. Thank you.
Ahh, now I feel better, and can go on to tell you about a couple of other, much more enjoyable, one-night stands this week. Brief visits by Franz Kafka and Clarence Darrow. First, there was “Kafkaesque.” Now, Kathi Diamant — here’s another woman who’s obsessed. But less with herself than with a potential link to literary history. Dora Diamant, who may or may not be related to Kathi, was the last mistress of the brilliant Franz Kafka, who died in 1924. She is accused of burning all his written work. But there’s evidence that Dora secretly saved his letters and papers, 35 documents that were stolen from her by the Nazis.
So, Diamant is not only raising money to continue her search for the lost papers, but she also wrote a play about the story, which was converted to a radio drama by British writer David Lichie. It’s that radio play, “Kafkaesque,” that had a staged reading this past weekend at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Maybe it was a little heavy on narration, but it touchingly juxtaposed the brief, May-November love affair of Dora and Franz with the modern-day woman’s quest for knowledge about that relationship and the letters it engendered. Rosina Reynolds, as usual, directed with a deft touch. Paul Eggington did some of his strongest work as Kafka, Katherine Faulkner brought a lovely dignity to Kafka’s aging niece, and Heidi Wilson was a totally natural, credible, modern-day Kay. But it was Sofia Sunseri, the dark-eyed, golden-voiced beauty who stole the show and took your breath away, with her fierce emotions and riveting intensity. This is a woman to watch. And you can catch her next month in Diversionary’s “Hannah Free.”
Also, watch for Joe Nesnow to resurface again as Clarence Darrow in “Attorney for the Damned,” a one-man show he’s been doing for a dozen years. Written by David Rintels, the piece shines a spotlight on the aging turn-of-the-century orator, distinguished defender of the underdog. Not only was he renowned for his articulate anti-fundamentalism in the Scopes Monkey Trial, but he was a staunch supporter of workers and blacks, and a rabid opponent of capital punishment. In powerful speeches and contemplative musings, Nesnow skillfully captures the great man’s essence, as he looks back on a life of scandal, atheism and uncompromising standards.
These were low-key encounters in high drama. But if you crave nasty, angry histrionics of the Karen Finley kind, you can still call 1-900-ALL-KAREN.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.