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(l to r) Tara Kenavan, Karen Sternberg, Postell Pringle,
Christine Verleny, and Jane Courtney in Famous for Fifteen Years
Centered around the funeral of fictional pop artist Billy Harlow, who's offstage even in flashbacks and who differs from Andy Warhol only in name, Famous for Fifteen Years has a few moments that demonstrate the talent of playwright Jamie Pachino and many more that could have benefited from better dramaturgy. But the performances in this show, staged in the basement of a church at the Jan Hus Playhouse, are marvels of gutsiness.

The piece is made up of vignettes, many of them solo, performed in the round by an ensemble cast. Among the standouts is Christine Verleny as Venus Envy, one of Warhol's -- sorry, Harlow's -- freaky, fun crowd. Slinky, streetwise, confident, and catty, Verleny's Venus demands our respect and complicity. Her silly/serious initiation of a young woman from the sticks named Ellen, whom she warns "Nobody named Ellen ever got anywhere," is one of the moments in which Pachino's skill at scene-building peeks through.

Once Ellen (Karen Sternberg) has shared with us her self-transformation to Holly Grail, a neophyte diva in The Factory -- sorry, The Mill -- art studio that Harlow runs in the downtown Manhattan of the '60s, we are along for the ride. Soon there enters the bisexual drug dealer Mustang (Postell Pringle), who dresses trashy-fab and takes no guff from anyone. While Pringle's routine as Mustang is a bit predictable, you believe him in most of it -- a trick that's hard to pull off, especially in the close quarters of the Jan Hus Playhouse. Though he's perhaps not swishy enough for the fringe-coated, flamboyant personality he represents, I still wish I'd seen more of him in the show.

Compliments are due director Tim Errickson for handling this talented cast so well -- including Jane Courtney in the rather thankless role of Ursula DuPres, a society girl who parties with the arty types. Particularly moving is a solo segment written for the Valerie Solanis character in the show, Sonny Vale, played with dauntless power by Adria Woomer. While Sonny doesn't always have the edge of a would-be assassin, her crumbling lounge act on the day of Harlow's funeral genuinely hurts. Pachino's strong writing in this segment is made achingly real by the imploding Woomer as she shudders in a sparkly gown supplied by resourceful costume designer James E. Crochet.

Unfortunately, the dramatic tension of this sequence doesn't extend to the rest of the play; we never get to know any of these people well enough to really feel for them, and the form of the piece isn't radical enough to justify throwing out such elements of accessibility. We want deeper characterizations and a bit more plot, or else we want something truly pop-arty and wacky, but Famous for Fifteen Years falls within an unsatisfying middle ground. The only reason it doesn't fail entirely is that the talents of those involved are so strong, if immature.

(l to r) Christine Verleny, Adria Woomer, and
Postell Pringle in Famous for Fifteen Years
Though the piece is structurally messy, it is filled with good ideas and excellent moments. What is there to learn from the cult of celebrity? What do people do when their lives have been spent in pursuit of a fame that doesn't even feed them, much less satisfy them? These questions are worthwhile, and when Holly confronts them in a scene with Venus (who has reverted to her real name, Inez), the contrast between Inez's new family and Holly's boredom with a world haunted by memories is almost searing. Holly complains that no one ever does anything "unpredictable" anymore, and she may have a point. When social conformity is treated as a virtue, the young need to fearlessly break rules and expose that conformity for the vice it can become. Unfortunately, the young people behind this show lapse into premature mourning for a rebellion that may now seem impossible but is not.

In some respects, the production's aspirations to professionalism are deadening. The use of prerecorded video in which television reporters swarm around the church where Harlow's funeral is taking place doesn't contribute much, although these segments are well produced by cinematographer Whitney Hamilton.

In the basement theater, one begins to imagine that this is a performance of a truly rebellious work -- a samizdat piece offered in Heiner Muller's East Germany or Vaclav Havel's Czechoslovakia. There are certainly plenty of rules to be broken nowadays, and one hopes that these artists will channel their distaste for conformity more effectively in the future.

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