As a solo performance artist, Karen Finley had the gross-out honed to a fine degree.
Other performance artists may have played with their food onstage, screeching ad nauseam about this and that.
But Finley’s sobbing spoken arias about sexual abuse, or her father’s suicide, or the status of American women--sometimes performed while she poured a can or two of yams down her backside--got her a kind of attention not often seen in performance-art circles.
Now Finley has moved on and is presenting her first group work, a play called “The Theory of Total Blame,” opening tonight at LACE.
Just slightly less rude than her solos--the piece has little nudity and food-play but is as foulmouthed as the rest of her work--"The Theory of Total Blame” is Finley’s first attempt to set her ideas in a form that is something more than performance art.
Casting herself as an alcoholic mother in a family of grown-up sons and daughters who have traipsed home for Thanksgiving, she presents a household of emotional cripples:
* A sepulchral, possibly comatose, offstage father (played by Finley’s real-life husband, Michael Overn).
* A wildly delusional daughter (played by dancer-lighting designer Carol McDowell) and her drug-dealing husband (Tom Murrin).
* A son who has just returned from a 10-year-long Tibetan pilgrimage (Chazz Dean) to avoid dealing with his father’s suicide.
* Another son (Gary Ray) who is fascinated by all things military and is thankful he can have sex “as long as it’s with total strangers and I don’t have to see their faces.”
“This is the story of a family that’s returned to the kind of games and systems of behavior that they used as children and still use as adults,” says the 33-year-old Finley.
“Each of the characters has a personal anger, a certain emotion that’s never been touched. That’s the saddest part of it. Each character’s crisis reveals something missing, a lack.”
Of course, those who have seen Finley’s solos, like her recent “Constant State of Desire,” already know that the family is her basic dramatic battleground.
“I’d been dealing with the family so long in my solo work, it just made sense to bring one onstage directly,” she says, explaining that her idea was to write “a 1990s version of ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’ ”
“Somehow the fact of it being a play makes everything more accessible. People can hear things they can’t hear or don’t want to hear in a performance.”
Finley hasn’t always been so user-friendly. At one New York performance of “Constant State of Desire” a few years ago, she came close to hitting a spectator in the eye with a flying piece of glass from a plate she threw on stage.
And raw meat, animal blood, ketchup, and Jell-O still play key roles in her solo work.
But Finley now seems to be looking for something a little more substantive than the blatant sensationalism she has been known for.
“I began to feel that the performance art tradition I had come from had stopped being shocking,” she says, explaining why how she came to her notorious yam-show. “Lots of artists like Vito Acconci in his ‘Seedbed’ or Chris Burden had done similar things. So I was partly making fun of that tradition. People forget that when I poured the yams on myself, I said ‘And I have a master’s degree in art!’ ”
Indeed, Finley now seems to glow when she mentions that several people have brought their own parents to see her show. “My own personal life,” she says, “is normal to the point of being boring.”
Each of her siblings--she is the oldest of six--is “an intense overachiever”: a banker, broker, doctoral candidate, lawyer and poet. Her mother is the vice president of a finance company; her father, a salesman and a musician, died when she was 21.
“Many writers have used personal experiences from their own lives. There’s nothing wrong with it. My father did commit suicide.
“But just because I talk about rape doesn’t mean I’ve been raped too. The references that I make to my own life I transform; I take artistic liberties with in the same way other artists do. Joyce used autobiography; so do many comics. Look at Phyllis Diller and Fang.
“But I don’t think I could put out a call out to Central Casting for someone to play me in my own work.”