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Juliana Francis in Tragedy in 9 Lives
(Photo © David Gochfeld)
Someday, there will be a play or a movie or a book about Andy Warhol that will reveal something about the man that will move an audience to tears -- or, at least, bring us to a deeper understanding of the most enigmatic figure of 20th century art. The most recent stylish-but-empty attempt to find meaning in the Warhol experience is Karen Houppert's new play Tragedy in 9 Lives, a production of the Sightlines Theater Company. The tragedy is that audiences may accept this play's sizzle for substance.

In a purely theatrical sense, there is plenty of fat to fry in Houppert's recreation of the downtown art scene of 1967-68, when fractured feminist Valerie Solanas entered Andy Warhol's orbit and eventually tried to assassinate him. The play uses their relationship as an entry point and central metaphor for an artistically dangerous time when morality was graded on a curve and no one knew who was actually doing the grading. Warhol was instrumental in changing our definition of art and his lifestyle was an embodiment of the changing times, so the playwright dives right in to that frenetic world; we become witnesses to a clash of extreme personalities, artistic flimflam, and whacked socio/political theories. With the help of director Stephen Nunns, Houppert gives us all of that and more amid the whirl of cameras and the omnipresence of drugs as every character in the play exhibits a desperate need for attention.

The production is nothing if not atmospheric. Nunns establishes about half a dozen playing spaces within P.S. 122's small ToRoNaDa Theater. Patrons are seated on couches and chairs that zigzag in and around those spaces, creating a genuine sense of audience inclusion. At one point during the performance we attended, a character called "The Reporter" (Chris Spencer Wells) was taking notes at a table right next to us while we were also taking notes. The doppelgänger effect of this bordered on the surreal.

The narrative is disjointed but not difficult to follow. Its main thread follows the disquieting relationship between Warhol (T. Ryder Smith) and Solanas (Juliana Francis). He was clearly fascinated by her and had a somewhat innocent interest in what made her tick; of course, as we now know, the tick was a time bomb waiting to go off. Solanas was the author of The SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men). Her rhetoric was violent yet surprisingly articulate. She was on the lunatic fringe but could pass for a would-be revolutionary with artistic pretensions -- or was it the other way around? In the late 1960s, it was hard to tell.

The play runs into a problem that any dramatization of Andy Warhol's life presents: Warhol was a virtual zombie. Put this guy and Solanas in any scene together and Solanas, possessed by dark passions and the energy to match them, will naturally dominate every moment. Tragedy in 9 Lives has has no choice but to be about her because her character simply demands it, while the Warhol character happily recedes and watches. To his great credit, T. Ryder Smith gives dimension to Warhol, finding humor and attitude in his self-effacing weirdness. This is a drama with music, and Warhol has a witty pop song, "When Mom Was Mom" (Aaron Maxwell/T. Ryder Smith), that lends him further dimension and charm. Nonetheless, Solanas is still the compelling force of the play, especially in Juliana Francis's tempestuous performance. When Francis sings (and dances) "Fuck Me Up," which she wrote in collaboration with Maxwell, she really seems to mean it.

As a recreation of its time, this show has merit. As an opportunity for Nunns to display inventive staging, it has additional merit. The production is also a worthy vehicle for Smith, Francis, and Wells. But Tragedy in 9 Lives really has very little to say and fails to convey even one tragedy, let alone nine. The best sequence in the play, in fact, has nothing to do with either Warhol or Solanas but rather with the reporter and a mysterious "theorist" played by Laura Flanagan. These two discuss art with considerable insight, making one wish that the play were about them.

[Note: For more about the relationship between Warhol and Solanas, see the film I Shot Andy Warhol, starring Lili Taylor as Solanas.]

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