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Flash Review, 3-26: Jackie O?
Finley does Kennedy Onassis

Karen Finley in "The Jackie Look." Photo © Max Ruby and courtesy Spin Cycle.

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2010 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- With its author/star sporting a trim baby blue blazer, starched white pants, and bright red-rimmed over-sized sunglasses, Karen Finley's "The Jackie Look," running through April 24 at the Laurie Beachman Theater, offers an idiosyncratic personification of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In this very personal exposé, the veteran performance artist explores the essence of Jackie O, not the Jackie that we thought we knew, but a different and naked Jackie, the one forced by society to unflinchingly proffer a facade of strength and grace in the face of the hideous.

Speaking in a child-like quiet voice and reading from prepared notes on a lectern, Finley's Jackie, seen February 6, revealed her life and memories delivered as an annotated photo album slide-show. Each series of slides -- including one series taken from the Kennedy assassination museum web site -- was knowingly accompanied by personal remarks and stories, which unveiled a first-person viewpoint that at first seemed overly simplistic but upon reflection actually disclosed the consequences of abject sorrow and delved into the long-lasting harm inflicted by her tremendous loses.

While the show was prefaced by a photomontage of the most glamorous and familiar photos of Jackie, most from her post Camelot-years adrift as a celebrity without portfolio, a silent celebrity whose photos spoke for her, Finley's lecture demonstration was, by contrast, a succinct portrait of her early Kennedy years, highlighted by striking images of the Kennedy brothers, John and Jackie together, and John and their children. We were led through her romantic wedding into the heart of Camelot and the fashionable details of the inauguration. These magic moments culminated with the shock of the assassination, as revealed in the Zapruder film. Never had I seen this film clip presented with such clarity. There it was, on a very big screen, in near high definition, the shooting of President Kennedy, with his head exploding in such a graphic fashion that this audience of hardened performance art aficionados audibly gasped.

Afterwards a wave of sympathy seemed to fill the room and heighten the audience's perspective, as Jackie talked about those times being a "stress test for a family and a nation." She continued her jib into the tragedies that befell the country's leaders and reinforced her journey into pathos, Finley's words enhanced by graphic imagery of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, complete with before and after pictures of the assassinated men.

Seemingly to provide a break from tragedy, Finley's Jackie merely buttressed the anguish by reminiscing about the happier times, again displaying pictures of her and John and John and the other Kennedy brothers, but now adding a series of pictures of her children, Carolyn and John Jr., first as the children we remember, then as adults. Finley was quite astute in conjuring up Jackie's loss and quantifying her lonely battle to appear strong in the face of the unrelenting paparazzi. Through portraying Jackie's personal approach to showing strength by dwelling on her Gucci glasses, Life magazine collection, and extensive shopping she revealed her coping mechanisms, which included the later marriage to Aristotle Onassis.

The show starts out like an onstage bi-op, and continues in this mode for far too long, but the character slowly develops to reveal a sense of rage. And, like a protective mother bear, this Jackie defends her cubs from the media onslaught that in her opinion tries to destroy them. Throughout this emotional build, the slide show continues to reveal one world disaster after another, as if to reinforce the idea of a world run amuck.

Ultimately, the Karen Finley we know emerged with her Jackie raging "who does Michelle Obama think she is" in a robust disapproval of Michelle Obama's sleeveless outfits as an example of an inappropriate sartorial casualness that sets a poor example for the Obama girls.

But the crowning achievement of the evening came when Finley's Jackie excoriated the press for its less than gentile reaction to Caroline's use of 42 "you knows" during a speech delivered when she was seeking a senate appointment from New York governor David Patterson. Finley repeated "you know" in all of its possible variations of pronunciation, each delivered in an ever louder and maniacal fashion until the words had no meaning beyond their composite sounds as they aggressively blasted the audience in a full-scale sonic assault. This near-demonic screed seemed to physically rattle the audience. These final moments of the show delivered the rawness and effectiveness of what is quintessential Finley. It's as frightening as falling off a building.

The performance seemed a bit rough around the edges but this is just the first iteration of Finley's Jackie. Let's hope it evolves into a succinct rendition with the poignant delivery that helps make Finley such a cutting edge artist.

"The Jackie Look," written, directed, and performed by Finley, features sound and lighting by David Colbert, video by Amy Khoshbin, costumes by Becky Hubbert, and hair and makeup by Darlene Dannenfelser.

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