- Jonathan Pitts
A tale of Two Warhols
Warhol Reviews by Jonathan Pitts
“Andy Warhol in Iran” by Northlight Theatre, at the NorthShore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Boulvard in Skokie. Runs January 27 – February 26, 2023. For tickets and more information go to www.northlight.org
“Andy Warhol’s Tomato” by Buffalo Theatre Ensemble, at MCANINCH ARTS CENTER at College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd in Glen Ellyn IL. RunsFebruary 2 – March 5, 2023. For tickets and information go to https://btechicago.com/project/andy-warhols-tomato/
If you want to know about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” – Andy Warhol, 1967
Two Fridays ago, I went to go review “Andy Warhol in Iran”. As I was pulling into the Skokie Theatre’s parking lot, NPR just announced that the video-tapes of the Memphis police murdering Trye Nichols had just been released. The last thing I wanted to do at that moment was see a play. Especially about an artist whom I’ve never particularly cared for or was impressed by. My tastes for pop art tend more towards the Banksy, Roy Lichtenstein, and Chicago’s Ed Paschke, but I was aware enough of Warhol as a modern master that I did go to a major Warhol retrospective in Lisbon, Portugal, as while I still wasn’t that impressed with his paintings, I was impressed by the volume of his work. Part of the reason I said yes to reviewing both Any Warhol plays running co-currently in Chicago is that I wanted to see another take on Warhol and see if the plays insights could show me something more about the man and his work so that I might appreciate them more. Plus, I thought that so much of Warhol’s work is repetitive takes of the same image, seeing both plays, would be appropriate to his work.
There I was, sitting in a fancy suburban theater, and it was the last place in the world I wanted to be. In 60-70 minutes everyone in the US who wanted to see those tapes, would and I was wondering is America about to have another set of massive protests and riots roiling across the country? Yet, there I was, my phone off, having no idea what was going on in the USA as the play began.
It didn’t help that “Andy Warhol In Iran” starts off the way it does. As Rob Lindley, playing Andy walks through the aisles talking in direct address to the audience, it felt more like a SNL skit than anything of depth. Then as the play tells us more about Andy Warhol with the actor speaking to us and an impressive multimedia display above the set, the play then felt like a touring educational show for college students. I’m not saying any of it was shallow, but it was more flat and surfacy, kind of like Warhol’s paintings.
Then, Hamid Dehghani playing Farhad comes in as a hotel bellhop who soon reveals himself as a
protestor taking Andy hostage and the play really takes off. I was all in. Instead of telling, the play’s script was showing. The dynamic energy and tension between both actors demonstrate very fine and compelling work as their arcs contrast. The direction by B.J. Jones is strong as Northlight’s Artistic Director now in his 25 th year . The multimedia design by Mike Tutaj is impressive. It made me want more plays to have multimedia on a regular basis. The set design by Todd Rosenthal and costume design by Natalia Castilla was well done and appropriate for what would have been a luxury hotel in Iran in the 1970’s.
The sound co-designed by Andre Pluess and Forrest Gregor, the lights designed by Heather Gilbert, and production stage manager Rita Vreeland all did fine work. The script written by Brent Askari has some amazing lines and themes about the value of art and celebrity versus real world politics and power or the lack of it. There was information on why Warhol wanted to be famous, why he loved money, products, and celebrities, and how his superpower was his ability to see, truly see what was on the surface, yet his flaw is that he had no interpretation of what he saw, he just replicated it with flair and pizzazz.
I really loved the montage of Iran protests and failed rebellions from the 1970’s on and silently
applauded when the final image was that of Iran’s Masha Amini who was killed for cutting her hair.
Maybe this time their rebellion will work and sustaining change will occur. I also found myself wondering, if the slow, flat first ¼ of the play was done that way on purpose by the
playwright and the director to reflect Andy Warhol’s work. Flat at first, but the more you look at it, the more you can see if not inside it, then behind it as it is placed in the context of American society where corporations are now people and people are now brands.
By watching this very well written, directed and performed play about art versus real life, I realized I was exactly at the best place to be on this night, waiting to see how America handles and responds to the Memphis police tapes.
Then, last Friday, as I was driving to DuPage to watch Any Warhol’s Tomato, because the massive protests didn’t happen, America was now caught up in China’s White Balloon traveling over US airspace. In one way, I thought it was funny. Warhol was so right in predicting that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, that now even giant white balloons get their 15 minutes of fame too.
If “Andy Warhol in Iran” was about the master at the heights of his career in the mid 1970’s, then
Buffalo Theatre Ensemble’s “Andy Warhol’s Tomato” is about the artist as a young man, a teen
specifically living in his hometown of Pittsburgh, in 1946, one year after the end of WW2.
Unfortunately, the script by Vince Melocchi doesn’t feel finished. It feels like a third draft of a script rather than a finished and polished project. As such it feels superficial, very lightweight. The stakes are not very high, and nothing changes all that much. It almost feels like an after school special. There’s a lot to possibly explore about what would have been happening in Andy Warhol’s world in Pittsburgh, an asexual young man growing up in post WW2, with a catholic background, but unfortunately, this is not that play. Hampered by the script’s limitations, the two actors, Alexander Wisniewski as Andy Warhol, and Bryan Burke as Mario “Bones” Bonino, both do the best job they can with the surfacy script, but they never really find the inner life of either character or why these two characters affect each other.
Steve Scott, one of Chicago’s finest veteran directors, does a really nice job getting everything he can out of the script and the actors, as they’re all trying to make it work. The tech crew and designers (Set –Jack Magaw; Costume & Make – Aly Renee Amidei; Lighting – Garrett Bell; Props – Rachel Lambert; Stage Manager – Jenniffer Thusing) all do a really nice job. There’s a good use of multimedia at the end, but I found myself wishing that there was more of it through the whole piece. If anything, the second play feels, not like a still life, but more like an underdeveloped picture, kind of like one of Andy Warhol’s beloved Polaroids, just one that never finishes to its final image. You can see there’s something there, but it never comes into full definition.
The audiences really loved both shows, different as they are.. Both plays got standing ovations.
In the end, which one you like, which one is better, is kind of like asking, “Which Warhol portrait of Elizabeth Taylor do you like best? The green, the yellow, or the red?”. The answer is in the eye of the beholder.