Three Ring Productions

at Econo-Art Theatre

Lots of people who excel at something are never asked for an autograph. So why do celebrities seem so much more important? Simply because they get their names in the paper and their faces on television. That is what makes them seem larger than life.

Andy Warhol understood that perfectly. His work as an artist revolved around cultural icons that are etched into our collective unconscious through sheer repetition. Even when those images are as trivial as a soup can or as frivolous as Marilyn Monroe, they become significant because they are massively disseminated. Warhol called his workshop in lower Manhattan the “factory,” cynically implying that he could mass-produce art the way our culture mass-produces its mythology.

In Carne Vale an Andy Warhol-type figure named Andy presides over auditions for a project he is planning. Several actors perform skits and monologues in an effort to come up with material that Andy can use. Although Andy never addresses the group, his director–a nasty, hyperactive bully named Billy–constantly interrupts the proceedings to belittle, scold, and taunt the actors. During the opening skit, for example, the actors are trying to re-create a London street scene in 1665, the year of the plague. Some flop on the floor moaning, others stagger around yowling in misery. One woman is undergoing a treatment that involves getting her head dunked in a bucket of water until she’s almost drowned. Andy whispers in Billy’s ear, and Billy jumps up to announce that “Andy just wants to hear the moaning.” He keeps screaming, “More pain! Andy wants more pain.”

Gradually it becomes apparent that pain is literally what Andy wants, but it takes the actors a while to catch on. In an effort to please Andy, for example, Missy leads the group in a sketch about date rape, but as soon as they finish, Billy jumps up holding his eyes and screaming, “I’m blind! I’m blind! I’ve been blinded by a piece of shit.” He confronts Missy and asks her if she’s ever been raped. “This is art,” she replies indignantly. “I’m an artist. Art doesn’t reproduce reality.” But that explanation sends Billy into a rage. “Andy wants real tears! Real pain,” he bellows. “And Andy wants what America wants!”

Andy doesn’t want a facsimile of pain; he wants the thrill of seeing real people suffer right before his eyes, the thrill that comes from watching video footage of real people bleeding after a terrorist attack or an earthquake. The only way to get real pain from these actors is to put them through real suffering. “All I’m asking from you people is a little exposure,” Billy whines. “You want to be artists, but you won’t expose yourselves.”

If that’s what Andy wants, that’s what they will give him. Why? For two reasons. First, they are held in thrall by Andy’s celebrity. “You’re like this artistic Buddha, and we’re like your first apostles,” says Leon Bushnell, who drinks too much because his marriage to an actress in the group is falling apart. Andy cultivates this image of himself by maintaining an impassive expression on his face and by speaking to the group only through Billy. This gives his commands an oraclelike quality that compels the actors to obey. “Armstrong, come here. Andy wants to photograph your nipples,” Billy shouts at an overweight actor. Armstrong trots over and pulls up his shirt, as Andy, seated as always, lifts a camera to his eye and photographs the man’s flabby breasts. When She-Ra, a nervous, dithering actress, admits she is mumbling a novena to the Blessed Virgin, Billy holds his ear to Andy’s mouth and then announces, “Andy would like you to try, ‘Coke is it.'”

The other reason these actors endure such humiliation is their hope that they can become celebrities by attaching themselves to Andy’s fame. “Andy can make you or break you,” says Billy, and the group seems to live by that assertion. “I work in a restaurant waiting on important people, and I want to be one of those important people,” Armstrong admits. The actors seem to view celebrity as a form of surrogate self-esteem, and they are desperate to feel adequate–so desperate they even submit to a suicidal exercise in self-revelation that Billy devises.

This is a pathetic spectacle, to be sure, but the cast members intensify it with highly focused performances. The spark plug who ignites each volatile situation is Mark Rosenthal, who plays Billy. Like a rabid terrier, he yaps and nips at the actors until they become visibly agitated. Like the character he plays, Rosenthal’s aggression seems to wring emotion out of the others, which makes them seem to exist only in relation to him. Paula Killen portrays Ginger as an actress desperately trying to win Billy’s love by agreeing with him, while Val Olney defines Missy’s strength by trying to defy Billy. Laurie Stevens depicts She-Ra as a woman almost frozen with her fear of Billy, while Eamon Hunt plays Leon Bushnell, as a man who can barely contain his urge to attack him. Peter Malof as Joe, an eager-beaver young actor, and Randy Rakes as George have their best moments when they are ruthlessly confronted by Billy. Nancy Seifried, who plays Dee-Dee Bushnell, reveals her character solely through her response to Billy’s taunts.

While these actors benefit enormously from their interaction with Rosenthal, they also owe a great deal to Wes Bailey, who, as Andy, does almost nothing in the play and utters only a couple of lines. With a vacant expression on his face and body language that suggests an utterly passive, detached personality, Bailey makes Andy a palpable presence. But there’s another reason Bailey belongs in this role. He’s the actor who duped Oprah Winfrey and Geraldo Rivera by appearing on their talk shows as the client of a sex surrogate. No one suspected he was a fraud until he confessed, which made Bailey’s manipulation of the media a perfect crime. And Warhol would have enjoyed that enormously.