Karen Finely and Eric Bogosian
at the American Repertory
Karen Finley and Eric Bogosian are about as serious as artists can get before they become indistinguishable from evangelical preachers, and even these two occasionally push the envelope. Their agendas are a little different from most preachers: "A Certain Level of Denial" and "Dog Show, Pounding Nails in the Floor with my Forehead," presented back to back as part of the A.R.T. Fall Festival, both excoriate mainstream America for closing its eyes to the crises of our day--suicide, AIDS, abortion, homophobia, permanent impoverishment. Their respective portraits of the national psyche are grim and unremittingly scathing, but there's a way in which dragging us through the underside of life in America functions as an exorcism or a restorative purging.
Purging is probably not the exact word either of them would use for it; minutes into Finley's first monologue, she is "bleeding and puking on your mauve living room" because she finds no other way of rousing us from our apathy: "hello America, no answer, hello society, no answer...no more comfort." References to the Rodney King riots, the Clarence Thomas trial and the William Kennedy affair back up her mournful claim that "this is the the age of reverse." Even in her more humorous moments, she refuses to compromise her political sensibility: "I want all girl bands on the late night talk shows if we can't have a girl host." An anecdote about roadkill which starts out morbidly funny winds up being more about her relationship with a father who goes back and runs over animals twice instead of possibly helping them to live.
Finley doesn't really ever want, or let, the audience laugh with her; we are meant to be uneasy, our laughter always self-conscious, her pain pointedly indigestible. Her predilection for the strangely dramatic keeps us even more off-balance. In front of three slide projectors projecting white light with no pictures, Finley strides onstage wearing only black mules, her posture, tone and demeanor daring us to make her into a sex object. We can't because she won't allow us to, her voice stronger than our gaze, conquering and shaming her would-be voyeurs. She puts on a hat, gloves, stockings, a slip, one at a time against different projections of women's art, each time assuming a new persona with a new story but each time equally angry. Segments that begin on the political large-scale often wind up being personal and startlingly moving: "Don't tell me about your big heterosexual problems. Don't tell me about your wedding that I'm denied, don't tell me about your divorce in your church that I'm excommunicated from, don't tell me about...the problems of the straights, this week I had three friends die and all you can say is it must get easier, knowing they're going to die."
Eric Bogosian too makes large-scale denunciations which provoke initial skepticism and an unwillingness to give in to being targeted as the perpetrator, but ultimately win your empathy and your admission of guilt. Bogosian suggests that if we're only here for quick consumption, his work is pointless: "you can tell your grandchildren one day, yes Eric Bogosian came out and played a dirty filthy bum and I applauded...You just came in for the show, maybe even ate something in Harvard Square? Some ethnic food, maybe? Food never tastes better than when you get it from some third world country where everyone's starving to death."
Entirely dressed in black, with no props at all, Bogosian effortlessly transforms himself into vastly different characters (unlike Finley, whose characters are more like multiple variations on a theme). One of Bogosian's best portraits was that of a man from the Robert Bly school of self-discovery: "Hi, I'm Eric and I'm a recovering male..." Eric proceeds to confess shame-facedly to noticing women's bodies on the street, sadly apologizing "I'm a human trapped in a man's body."
Bogosian and Finley sometimes strike so hard and so brutally that the social criticism can be self-defeating, making its audience feel distant rather than implicated and aroused to action. But they show us the selves we'd often rather not see, and make us acutely aware of the cost of any level of denial. One of Bogosian's characters scoffs, "the world is a complicated place and trying to understand it ain't gonna make it any less complicated." Trying to understand the world Finley and Bogosian confront us with may not make our lives any less complicated, but it may make them a little more humane.