Karen Finley’s feel-good AIDS rage | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Karen Finley’s feel-good AIDS rage

Photo by Hunter Canning

Photo by Hunter Canning

BY SCOTT STIFFLER  |  From the lobby greeter’s gentle disclaimer to the nervous pre-show audience chatter, there was no shortage of gallows humor surrounding the notion of spending an intense Thursday night at a show about close friends lost to AIDS — as if calling out the evening’s downbeat nature would take some of the sting away. It didn’t, of course, but one aside from the artist managed to take viewers from tissues to chuckles by casting herself as more ambitious than altruistic: “Karen and Her Dead Friends, Symphony Space, 2016,” she said, imagining an alternately titled “Written in Sand” as a commercial triumph.

It wasn’t to be, though, since this bit of wishful thinking happened after a technical glitch. Bells and cello music from an iPad failed to arrive on cue, plunging the show into not-ready-for-Symphony-Space territory and earning an ad-lib from author/performer Karen Finley that spoke volumes: “We had a bit of a malfunction, but my emotions are still here.”

Maybe, she proposed, her dead friends were making their presence known by denying the use of contemporary technology. If there were any ghostly AIDS casualties in attendance, seeing that iPad must have been an insulting reminder of all the things they should still be around for, and taking full advantage of.

Comprised exclusively of performance pieces and writings on AIDS created by Finley between 1983 and 1994 — many performed publicly for the first time — “Written in Sand” is set firmly in a time when effective HIV treatment, marriage equality, transgender people on TV, and PrEP regimens were as inconceivable as the notion of a phone that fits in the palm of your hand and responds to touch.

That alone is enough to make both performer and audience angry — but the evening’s real source of rage, which starts on boil and never allows itself to simmer, flows from the lack of compassion afforded to those who received the grim diagnosis and didn’t survive. Whether cursing an ambulance worker clueless about an unhooked IV drip or picturing an urban AIDS sufferer forced to spend his final days back home, desexualized, in a bedroom whose cowboy wallpaper hasn’t changed since adolescence, “Written in Sand” always seems on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its indignities. It never quite gets to that point, though. Interludes originally written or performed by musicians who died of AIDS (nicely played on piano, harmonica, and flute by Paul Nebenzahl) keep that avalanche of grief at bay.

“Hello Mother” and “The Black Sheep” bookend the show. The former is a series of pleas that has an increasingly hoarse and exhausted Finley placing ineffective phone calls to family members of the sick as well as the medical and political establishment, all of whom keep their distance out of ignorance or convenience. The latter has her reaching out to someone about to slip away, willing to touch them and thumping her fist against her chest until the heartbeat sound stops and the stage goes dark.

That isn’t anywhere near as grim as it sounds. In fact, the combination of all this rage, reflection and regret sends you out of the theater more exhilarated than defeated — and yes, even able to feel good about grieving.

Written & Performed by Karen Finley
With Paul Nebenzahl
Through October 23
Thursdays, 8 p.m.
At Baruch Performing Arts Center
Enter on 25th St.,
Btw. Lexington & Third Aves.
$30 general admission
$20 for students/seniors, at the box office
Reservations: 212-352-3101
or SpinCycleNYC.com