`Shut Up' laughingly extreme, shocking

Review: This over-the-top play isn't meant to be sexually provocative. It just wants you to find the humor in things you find unsettling.

April 07, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Much of - make that, most of - what Karen Finley says and does in her latest one-woman show, "Shut Up and Kiss Me," can't be printed in a family newspaper.

Furthermore, even by the standards of the Theatre Project, which has presented some pretty outrageous shows over the years, this one outdoes outrageousness.

That said, "Shut Up and Kiss Me" is also outrageously funny. And there's a point to it. Laughing at what scares us and offends us can be a kind of healing.

Finley is best known as one of the NEA Four, specifically the lead plaintiff in the court case that challenged the National Endowment for the Arts' "general standards of decency" and eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Shortly before losing the Supreme Court case, she launched her own 900 number; a year later, she posed for Playboy.

"Shut Up and Kiss Me" is a continuation of those flaunting gestures. After a decade of being reviled by those of the far right, Finley has taken their image of her and run with it. And by carrying shock value to its furthest extreme, she exposes its ludicrousness.

In her own idiosyncratic style - somewhere among a poetry reading, a psychiatric session and a gawky strip tease - Finley becomes the Queen of the Extreme. Nothing is held back (a situation that took an especially unprintable and unscripted turn on opening night). In a series of monologues, her characters struggle with psychological hang-ups of the Oedipus and Electra complex variety, bringing their troubles out in the open, without shame.

For example, in one segment, following the advice of her therapist, a woman stuck in an unresolved relationship with her father confronts him in his office and tries to convince him to sleep with her so she can get on with her life. Finley, whose range of voices suggests she is possessed by spirits, portrays the father with gruff businessman hauteur; the daughter fluctuates between Katharine Hepburn-style patrician tones and a pleading adolescent whine.

Once dubbed "the chocolate-smeared woman," Finley trades chocolate for honey in "Shut Up and Kiss Me." In the final third of the evening, she rolls, writhes and dances in three pitchers' worth, which are poured on a padded mat by audience volunteers. She has a sense of humor about this as she does about almost all of the show, performing with a sort of sly wink, as if to say, "See, I'm even naughtier than you thought." In this case, she throws off her scanty clothes, saying, "It's honey time!"

For a performer who bares everything from her skin to her soul on stage, Finley's approach has a surprising naivete. She reads most of her text, and if she doesn't like the way she says a line, she stops and gives it another try - or two or three. The only thing slick about the 90-minute performance is her own body coated with honey, and even that, at times, has a naiad-like innocent grace.

"Shut Up and Kiss Me" is not sexually enticing, not a turn-on. It's a comic commentary on Finley's censorious detractors' worst fears. Not for the faint of heart, it's rude, brave, humorous and tasteless all at the same time. And it'll definitely make you think twice the next time someone calls you "honey."

`Shut Up and Kiss Me'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. today and April 12-14

Tickets: $20

Call: 410-752-8558

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