I promised sometime last week that I would attempt to put my money where my mouth was and write a review of a show that I strongly disliked while still keeping to the recommendations I made for theater reviewers. And maybe, just maybe, it would also be interesting to read. What you are about to read (if you click on the jump) represents my attempt to do so, reviewing Drama of Works’ Warhol at PS122.
You enter the theater and take your seat, looking out from your chair, you see four rows of cardboard boxes, with signs on them. Graphically, the signs are in the Andy Warhol Brillo Pad Box style, but they simply bear the show’s title: Warhol, with a trademark after his name. Gradually, four performers walk on stage, two in white fright wigs and Warhol-esque clothing, two in black fright wigs, looking rather like members of the seminal Goth band The Sisters of Mercy. One of the boxes begins moving agitatedly, the white-fright-wig Warhols strike famous Andy Warhol poses, gazing at the box, and the cast gradually gathers around the box, eventually opening it to reveal a little Andy Warhol homonculous puppet.
What follows is a forty-five minute greatest-hits style tour through Andy Warhol’s life, largely performed by little Campbell’s Soup Cans manipulated by the two White Andy Warhols while the Homonculous- skillfully manipulated by the two Black Andy Warhols- looks on. There is no text, all props and scenery come from the boxes. Often, a phone rings and no one can find it. The play is punctuated by sound bytes from some of Warhol’s many interviews.
Clearly what is going on is some kind of dramatic attempt to illuminate, with some amount of wit and puppet-based pizzazz, the life of a man who was perhaps the most famous artist since Picasso. That the production fails on almost every level is an object lesson in that old theater adage on the need to commit to your choices.
From reading the program one gleans that the two White Warhols are, in fact, meant to represent the “left brained” (or commercial) and “right brained” (or spiritual) sides to Andy Warhol. I must here admit to a prejudice of mine against conceptual choices that need to be explained in a program note. To me, if it is not clear in the performance, you haven’t done your job. This is not a problem for everyone, but it interferes with my appreciation of a director’s work, and in Warhol, if you haven’t read the program, the split brain idea is likely to remain elusive. I could only find two instances, both times when the Right Andy and the Left Andy compete for the homonculous’ attention with things like money, art, a squeaking nun doll &c in which I could glimpse a sign of the main conceptual conceit of the show.
For the rest of the play, the two Andys are largely treated as set and prop manipulators with attitude, much like Richard Foreman’s famous “dwarves”—they set the scenes, they watch the actions, they move soup cans. Unlike Foreman’s “dwarves”, however, the two actors lacked any kind of real conviction in what they’re doing. Everything is done with a kind of blasé lackadaisicalness that, while probably meant to reflect Warhol’s own deadpan sensibility about everything around him, ultimately feels both sloppy and lazy, undercutting even the most clever moments of staging with a kind of sleepiness in presentation. Peter Brook once wrote that as artists we need to “trust our boredom”. Ultimately, one of the main jobs of an actor is to keep me interested in what is going on. When the actors themselves seem not to care, it is hard to care about what they’re doing, and thus doubly difficult to stay involved emotionally or intellectually.
Another way that the piece fails to commit to its choices is in asking of itself the basic question what is this all about, anyway? and then sticking to whatever answer the creative team comes up with. The play feels short on ideas and overly long at three quarters of an hour, and I can’t help but think that comes from its scatterbrained feel. Moments that should end quickly drag on forever, each moment is set in what seems a snails pace, and I was never quite clear what the homunculus (for whose benefit the White Andys were performing) thought or felt about anything that was going on. Given that Warhol was such a difficult man to pin down-every clip from an interview reveals him as the ultimate obfuscator of his own image- surely a production about him should attempt to shed some light on its subject or make the impossibility of shedding that light its very subject. It’s very clear that this Warhol was an attempt on the former that didn’t work out. It is based on this simple idea that there were two sides to the man (public and private, commercial and spiritual etc.) that warred against each other for control over his soul. The war between spiritual and practical concerns, however, fails to manifest in most of the events portrayed in his life, and ultimately, many of the biographical vignettes have little if anything to do with each other, other than they all happened to the same man. Ultimately, the two things the audience learns about Warhol, the two understandings that can be gleaned either about his life or his character, are that he was nearly impossible to interview and volunteered occasionally in a soup kitchen.
Perhaps this is simply because of its subject. Andy Warhol never really wanted to be discovered or illuminated in a personal sense, and perhaps it is a mark of his genius that no matter how many biographies of him we read, or tapes we listen to or journals we pour over he will always remain on some level a mystery. After all, Warhol created himself and his own persona was, to some extent, his greatest work. That being said, if a theater company is going to investigate something as large as the life and soul of a more-famous artist, surely I’m not out of line for expecting some amount of profundity, or at any rate, enjoyment.
There is one great moment in Warhol, and it is the moment in which Warhol gets shot. Standing atop several stacked cardboard boxes, a soup can with a fright wig is talking with several smaller soup cans. Suddenly a gun shot rings out. The lights change to a tight yellow cone, an alarm sounds, and the soup can flies in slow motion as the homunculus races over the boxes (also in slow motion) to catch and protect the memory of itself. The moment is beautiful and funny and tender, and it is also the only moment in the show in which the whole ensemble performes with alacrity and skill. If the dedication and focus brought to this one moment could be applied to the entire production, perhaps director Gretchen Van Lente and her company could have created something that deepens our understanding while keeping us entertained. In its current version, however, a certain lack of commitment pervades the entire show until I found it difficult to commit as well.