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Chris Tanner, Lance Cruce, and Karen Finley
in Make Love
(Photo © R. Lasko)
Karen Finley's latest show, Make Love, was nearly shut down on Sunday night. Apparently, this had nothing to do with the infamous performance artist's outrageous, in-your-face, and politically potent performance; Fez, the show's venue, was closed because it allegedly violated New York City's cabaret laws forbidding dancing. Although the club re-opened on Monday, Finley's Sunday evening show on July 20 had to be hastily relocated to the ACME Underground, just around the corner from Fez.

The change in venue contributed to an atmosphere that seemed increasingly subversive as the show went on. Finley's work here seems infinitely more raw than in her recent, more polished pieces at P.S. 122: The American Chestnut and Shut Up and Love Me. At the same time, the material seems more coherent and focused than it did in this show's workshop incarnation as The Distribution of Empathy last year at The Cutting Room. A post-September 11 outpouring of grief, anger, and humor, Make Love is an electrifying and unique theatrical experience.

The overriding metaphor of the show is Liza Minnelli -- and, yes, that idea is as strange as it sounds. Liza impersonator and pianist Lance Cruce starts the proceedings with a tap number and an instrumental medley of tunes that Liza helped make famous, including quite a few from the musical Cabaret. He's followed by Chris Tanner, also in Liza drag, who sings snatches of "Liza's Back" mixed with "Over There." Finley then enters as Liza with an entourage of additional Liza impersonators -- but not the kind you'd normally find in a cabaret show. "Leather Daddy Liza" is dressed in a thong and checkered vest with Kabuki-like makeup enhancing his eyes. A man claiming to be "Covergirl Liza" is the scariest of them all, with cotton wads obscuring his face so that they form a horrifying mask.

In a press release for the show, Finley states that "Liza Minnelli is New York. She keeps on trying. After her hip replacement, she still gets up and dances." Be that as it may, audience members may still find themselves wondering what Liza Minnelli has to do with the stories that Finley tells, which range from a rant against the people who live in Ann Arbor for not carrying the New York Times ("USA Today is not a paper!" she screams) to telling a reporter that he should really call Eric Bogosian for a better reaction to the events of September 11 because Bogosian was higher up than Finley and had a better view.

Tanner, as the singing Liza, is used to great effect. His songs range from "Try to Remember" to "Leaving on a Jet Plane." If Liza Minnelli is not the artist most associated with these tunes, the songs themselves are poignant reflections on Finley's state of mind as she tells her stories. A duet between Tanner and Finley is the emotional highlight of the evening; it features the refrain "Tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me you're all right." The song is haunting, filled with the imagery of dust and "the sudden smell of burning flesh."

Finley adeptly incorporates moments of improvisation into her piece, dealing with a false eyelash that gets into her eye and a wig that falls off during a segment of the show. "That's what happens when you don't get an NEA grant," she jokes, referring to the 1990 incident when she and three other artists were denied funds by the government agency.

Political commentary runs throughout Make Love, which implicitly also includes the second half of that phrase, "Not War." Most often, this takes the form of humor rather than vitriol, although references to "C-Minus Bush" who "only feels potent when he's on the brink" make it clear what Finley's thoughts are in regard to our current President. But, in the end, the show is much less about any overt political agenda than it is about the conflicted feelings that we -- as Americans and as New Yorkers -- have had to contend with following the events of September 11, 2001.

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