`Preach' holds court on free speech

Review: The one-woman show by Holly Hughes, one of the `NEA Four,' once again has control over her script.

March 01, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In her one-woman show, "Preaching to the Perverted," Holly Hughes compares the Supreme Court to theater: You need tickets to attend; some performances are sold out; everybody wants the leading players to get them in.

But the Supreme Court turned out to be a type of theater unfamiliar to an avant-garde performance artist like Hughes: "This is real theater -- big money, big production values, and there's a script, and it's not yours."

A writer and performer whose one-woman shows often satirize sexual stereotypes and draw on her own personal and political experiences, Hughes got her introduction to the Supreme Court when she was one of the "NEA Four" -- four performance artists whose 1990 National Endowment for the Arts grants were denied because their work didn't meet the government's standards of decency. Hughes' grant was for a show called "No Trace of the Blond," an examination of vampire imagery from a revisionist feminist perspective.

The NEA Four sued the government for violating their First Amendment rights, and in 1998 the lawsuit reached the Supreme Court.

Although the case was lost, Hughes came away with enough material to create "Preaching to the Perverted," which is receiving its Baltimore premiere at the Theatre Project.

It's a mostly fervent and funny piece, even though, as its punning title suggests, it's unlikely to appeal to a wide audience.

Still, Hughes has a talent for storytelling and knows how to turn a nifty phrase. For instance, she says the NEA Four -- herself, Karen Finley, John Fleck and Tim Miller -- were so frequently referred to as "Karen Finley and the three homosexuals" that it began to sound like the name of a band, perhaps one that played at high school proms.

She also points out that we already have government-funded speech about homosexuals: Jesse Helms hardly talks about anything else.

A pixie-ish performer, Hughes makes her entrance hauling several large cardboard cartons. One of these contains American flags of various sizes, which serve as a lead-in for a story about raising the flag at her family's summer cabin when she was a child, a flag she sincerely describes as "the most beautiful thing we owned."

She then digs out a Fodor's pocket guide to Washington and launches into a comic tour of the Supreme Court, one of the best segments of the show.

"I want you to have a better time at the Supreme Court than I did," she explains.

A subsequent section drags, however, when she dwells too long on her embarrassment over taking a Beanie Baby to court.

More effective is a bit where she introduces the Supreme Court justices by lining up nine little rubber ducks on the edge of one of the cartons, then tosses them back with increased fervor after the court concludes there was no evidence of discrimination against the theater artists.

Donning a rainbow-colored synthetic wig and standing on another of the cartons, she also makes hash of former NEA chairman John E. Frohnmayer's comment, "Holly Hughes is a lesbian. Her work is heavily of that `genre.' "

At several points during the piece, Hughes attempts to deflect such questions as "Wasn't this good publicity?" or "Wasn't it a great career move?" by posing them herself.

Yet even she acknowledges that the lawsuit brought her increased attention -- including front-page coverage in the New York Times.

Now that the court case is behind her, Hughes is once again in charge of the script, and she's milking her experience with what she calls "the dark side of democracy" for all it's worth.

And who can blame her? After all, why should Helms and his "genre" hog the spotlight?

`Preaching to the Perverted'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Tickets: $15

Call: 410-752-8558

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