“It’s as if Sandra Bernhard took a lot of amphetamines and didn’t care if she was funny,” a friend suggested after seeing Karen Finley’s new show The Distribution of Empathy — summing up a performance that left many audience members scratching their heads. Finley’s rambling, chaotic performance at the Berkeley Rep was as interesting for what it revealed about audiences and their expectations as it was in itself. It also suggested a deep tension between Finley’s manic New York performance style and a very Berkeley sensibility.
At bottom, Empathy is Karen Finley’s 9/11 story. But it’s nothing so simple as that. From the awkward start — Finley reading the day’s paper aloud, her head bowed, her voice monotonous — to the supercharged last segment that included something like lounge singing and a fair bit of air-humping, she dragged along a group of people who were probably hoping for something just a tad more narrative. Or perhaps they were expecting a reprise of the naked chocolate-smearing for which Finley became infamous and were disappointed that she kept her (thong) panties on. Whatever the case, ten minutes in, people were slipping out. Afterward, people could be heard apologizing to each other, and behind me someone said “avant-garde New York shit.” It’s hard to know what people coming to the show expected, but safe to say many didn’t seem to get it, or had to radically revise their expectations on the fly.
Finley is all about on the fly, literally and figuratively. She swoops from prewritten bits — stories, poems — to stream-of-consciousness improvisation. Finley is working without a net, and that may discomfit her audience, especially folks expecting something polished, orderly, or measured — the usual things one sees at the Rep. She makes no effort to have a nice “stage voice,” she frequently loses her train of thought, and she makes herself incredibly vulnerable.
People who stayed heard Finley say amazing stuff. She’s profound (“We live in a world that loves to kill beautiful things”), she’s political (“I’d done all the shopping I could and hadn’t really helped my country”), and she’s funny (“Don’t give me the floss talk”). She also stumbles, rants, mumbles, and rails at audience members who resist her kisses. She challenges her audience to pay complete attention, even if in so doing they risk their own sanity. My friend nailed it again: “My mind has been bent. Either it will continue to bend, or it will snap.” For a week at the Rep, audiences had the chance to have their minds snapped. Some welcomed the opportunity; some are probably still reeling.