Karen Finley is sitting at a corner table in the Ukrainian restaurant Veselka, on the East Village street where she once lived. Tears are running down her cheeks, but she’s smiling as well: “I’m just feeling so good right now,” she says. Finley, the 47-year-old performance artist best known for her part in the early-nineties cultural firestorm surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts, is as emotionally volatile as a sugared-up child. Her resting state is a blank, assessing stare, but once she springs into speech, she segues from subdued religious ecstasy (“There’s a joy here today”) to hyper-enthusiastic rapture (“Those boots are hot!”). And if she sounds a little diva-y, no wonder: In Finley’s new cabaret-style performance Make Love, which opened on Sunday at the Noho club Fez, she channels Liza Minnelli.
“Remember when fear and paranoia about anthrax shut down Rockefeller Center and some shows went off the air for a while?” she asks. “Well, when Rosie O’Donnell came back, she brought out Liza, who, even with her newly replaced hip, got right up there and danced. With everything she’s been through, Liza gets up and keeps on going.”
The same, of course, may be said of Finley, who today is wearing a denim miniskirt, a plunging black halter blouse, and a huge faux diamond ring on an impeccably manicured index finger. Fuchsia bra straps, which match her open-toe heels and toenails, are falling off her shoulders. Finley will probably be forever associated with yams, chocolate—and Jesse Helms. The legal costs she racked up during the NEA’s standards-of-decency tantrum—which took her and three other publicly funded artists all the way to the Supreme Court—left her so broke that the longtime New Yorker is living in Tarrytown until she can afford to move back to Manhattan. Since then, however, she’s taken the lessons of Liza’s Back to heart, going on to do work that many consider her best and that certainly is her funniest.
In Make Love (which she calls, among other things, a “nod to queer theater”), Finley dons a sequined minidress and hides her long red hair in a short black wig. Her collaborators, pianist Lance Cruce and singer Chris Tanner, also dress as Liza, and audience members, male and female, young and old, are invited to come in Liza drag as well. “I don’t want to see the Liza taken out of New York—the pizzazz,” says Finley. “I want everyone to know they can be Liza.” One guest Liza impersonator is Finley’s own 9-year-old daughter, Violet, who originally asked if she could be David Gest instead. (No.)
But while the form of Make Love is Liza-inspired glam, and a blend of song, dance, and monologue much like her critically acclaimed Shut Up and Love Me from 2000, the content is deeply political (listen for the unspoken “Not War” in the title). Finley uses the “Liza thing” in conjunction with medleys of songs from World War II and the Vietnam era as a backdrop for her monologues about the current political climate and the changes New York has undergone since September 11. She was two blocks from the World Trade Center on that day, and though she’s taken Minnelli’s cue and gotten on with things, the event and its repercussions are still very much on her mind. A lounge act seemed to her the best way to address New Yorkers’ ongoing sorrow.
You can see that for Finley, who describes herself as a Jungian, Judy is not just Judy but rather The Mother, and Liza’s struggle to keep working, keep thin, keep herself together, has an archetypal dimension. Finley is mounting a spiritual battle of her own these days, trying to conjure a spirit of Liza-ness so powerful that it will defeat, even if just for an hour and fifteen minutes, “the S&M culture of security and probing,” the panic, the “kinkies of Bush and Rumsfeld.”
“This is the hardest piece I’ve ever done,” says Finley. “It’s so emotionally challenging.” This is significant coming from someone who has to her credit twenty years’ worth of wrenching work on sexual abuse, her father’s suicide, and the loss of countless friends to AIDS. Finley almost tears up again when she speaks of her pride in New Yorkers. “After September 11th, we didn’t move to Tulsa. The healing part of show business, I’ve learned, is that it teaches you the show must go on.”