Preaching to the Perverted

Local Arts Reviews

Preaching to the Perverted: Full-Court Press

The Off Center,

September 21

Running time: 1 hr, 45 min

Audience participation is a bane. I was not pleased to be the audience member at whom Holly Hughes chose to yell, from a quarter of an inch away, to express how being at the Supreme Court made her feel. (For the record, the answer is intimidated and scolded.) Solo performers, bless their risk-taking, confessional hearts, have ample stores of vulnerability to spread around, but such personal, brutal confrontations are better left to situations where it's socially permissible to yell back.

Besides, Hughes does just fine confronting from the stage. Better than fine, in fact. Hughes is startlingly coherent, sharp, and, as she herself points out in the course of this autobiographical show, damn funny for a lesbian performance artist. Her sprightly, faerielike demeanor is engaging, her vulnerability seductive. Radiating grace and strewing about a whole party-aisle's worth of patriotic decorations, in the course of this show, Hughes climbs in and out of cardboard boxes, tosses around flags large and small, and even dances a little.

Preaching to the Perverted is a recent-history lesson and a fierce stand-up act rolled into one. The topic's a personal one, too: the important-cum-comically-tragic court battle that Hughes, performance artist Karen Finley, and photographers Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe ("Karen Finley and the three homosexuals") waged in the late Eighties and early Nineties against the federal government, Jesse Helms, and the various misguided, homophobic attempts to legislate "family values" with respect to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Personal anecdotes, stories, and some music/voiceovers culminate in a re-enactment of the trial, at which little rubber ducks represent the Supreme Court Justices. The lawsuit to prevent the NEA from imposing those illusive "standards of decency" when doling out grant money ended with an 8-1 verdict against Hughes and the rest of the "NEA Four."

According to Hughes, the government's two main arguments were "What about the kids?" and "What about the Nazis?" In other words, what lost the NEA Four the case was the Supreme Court's fear of art that might prove too smutty for children's eyes ("Why stop there? What about the aesthetic needs of the unborn?" Hughes suggests) combined with the fear that an NEA without decency standards (whatever those are) would be flooded with grant requests from those teeming hordes of Nazi artists.

In one particularly rousing number, Hughes says that she's not going to just whine about things like how America isn't really a democracy (although she does whine about that, without ever really getting into why), she actually has a plan. Curious? It's called the gay agenda; it's set to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive"; and it wears a rainbow wig. Its beacons are that purple Teletubby and a vibrator.

The parade of pride colors, the First Amendment defenses, the sentiment that the majority is, essentially, stupid (Hughes cites the huge box office success of Patch Adams as evidence) -- one suspects none of this proved especially new ground for those in attendance. The title itself calls into question just how much impact Hughes is having on the realm of the unconverted, especially now that she is no longer in the harsh mass-media spotlight. But Preaching to the Perverted serves, at the very least, as both intelligent entertainment and rousing battle cry for those who see all too clearly the many faults in the logic of the mainstream, much as I saw every blemish on Ms. Hughes' lovely face.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Preaching to the Perverted, Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jesse Helms, National Endowment for the Arts, "NEA Four"

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