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Karen Finley
Photograph: Courtesy Hunter Canning

Theater review: Karen Finley's Unicorn Gratitude Mystery

Written by
Helen Shaw

The drunk lady in the front row loved Karen Finley's latest performance solo a little too much. Swaying to her feet during a scene change, she begged Finley for a hug; when our star entered in her Trump Suit—complete with orange Oompa Loompa makeup—the heckler (mockingly) hissed and jeered. But what might have been okay downtown in the ’80s was disruptive and unsettling at the comparatively swanky Laurie Beechman. Finley paused so order could be restored, although she was unsure if that was the right thing to do. Shoving her reading glasses into her blonde wig (next to the other pair she kept losing), she fretted. “It's important that we can still be in spaces where we don't have to be obedient,” she said.

To orient you, this all went down right after Finley/Trump screamed, “I want a bleeding pussy / To call my own!” So if you were worried that the notorious Chocolate Smeared Woman was going to suddenly turn obedient herself: nope. Unicorn Gratitude Mystery hits the classic Finley markers: food as a stand-in for body fluids, a mingling of politics and sexual fetish, Finley's blitzed performance persona. There's plenty of breakneck obscenity, but some element of shock is gone; I don't think anyone nowadays sees a plate of Twinkies at a Karen Finley show and is surprised when she uses them to simulate orgasm. With a Finley package, it does what it says on the box. Yet there are other surprises here, ones that emerge out of a piece that starts as chaos and coheres as it goes along. Be ready, though, the 90 minutes contains much that is discombobulated, and (this is like calling rain “wet”) self-indulgent.

Finley embodies four selves in a quartet of rants-cum-monologues. (She reads from notes, some of which seem new to her.) First she's the titular unicorn in a ragbag cape and a twisted fabric horn, asking us to envision the “white savior beast” and extolling its many qualities. It drinks Kombucha! It doesn't put up with hold music! It sounds like a white liberal pill, basically, and Finley starts ladling spoken-word abuse on the mythical creature after a few minutes. “Was the unicorn there for the lion? / Was the unicorn there for Sandra Bland?” For her second trick, Finley turns into Hillary Clinton—or at least a pantsuited politician still struggling with the legacy of a certain blue dress. (Cue Twinkies.) Through gritted teeth, Finley/Hillary avows her gratitude for everything, everything that's happened to her.

Then it's time for the Republican nominee—branded cap, fuzzy blonde wigs above and sprouting from the trousers below. And here Finley's insistence on sexualizing every single utterance starts to look like a plan, not a compulsion. Yelping in masochistic ecstasy, Finley's Donald is a whole (t)rumpus room of masculine anxiety. It's not a new thought: hyper-aggressive rhetoric reveals vulnerability. But Finley has a particularly emphatic way of making subtext into text. This performance then dovetails into her final section, the strangest and best written of the night: a story about a woman uncontrollably attracted to veterans, the more physically disabled the better. Men, the woman muses, “their lives nothing—meaningless.” They'll die for anything, she marvels, for their country, oil, the economy. All that submission! She finds it delicious. It's a tidy turn in a messy show, and it shows us that the piece was focused on one thing all along. Unicorn is a rare beast indeed, a new way to consider the BDSM paradigm of the American body politic. It's a Finley show, so she smears a lot of crap on that body—but somehow, she also seems to be clearing some of the bullshit away.—Helen Shaw

Laurie Beechman Theater (Off Broadway). Written and performed by Karen Finley. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Click here for full venue and ticket information.

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