Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol on June 3, 1968, out of anger that he wouldn’t produce her play/manifesto Up Your Ass. Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968, out of anger at the senator and presidential candidate’s support of military aid for Israel.
In Jean Stein’s 1982 oral history of Warhol’s Factory It Girl, Edie (as in Sedgwick), Barbara Rose, the wife of artist Frank Stella, recalls her husband’s prediction of the outcome of these two events: “Bobby’s going to die and Andy’s going to live. That’s the way the world is.” He was of course correct. (Rose also maintains that “the shooting was a suicide attempt; [Warhol] provoked it.”)
Andy Warhol in Iran
Through 2/26: Wed 1 and 7:30 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2:30 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 PM; open captions and ASL performance Fri 2/10 8 PM, open captions, audio description, and touch tour Sat 2/11 2:30 PM; no shows Wed 2/23; North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, 847-673-6300, northlight.org, $30-$89 (students $15, subject to availability)
The messy nexus of celebrity, politics, and personal trauma forms the spine for Brent Askari’s speculative two-character play, Andy Warhol in Iran, now receiving a scintillating production at Northlight under BJ Jones’s direction. As Reader contributor Jack Helbig wrote about in our winter arts preview issue, Northlight’s staging is one of two current plays riffing off real events in Warhol’s life in the Chicago area right now—the other is Vince Melocchi’s Andy Warhol’s Tomato, featuring a young Warhol (or “Warhola,” as he was then still known) at Buffalo Theatre Ensemble at College of DuPage.
The Warhol we meet in Askari’s play, set in 1976, is several years post-shooting. After not painting for a few years following the failed murder attempt, he’s back making very lucrative silkscreen portraits for celebrity clients, in part to support his magazine Interview. And he’s come to Iran to take Polaroids for such a portrait of Farah, Empress of Iran and third wife of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
That part is all based on fact. The fiction comes in when Warhol (Rob Lindley) warily answers the door to room service (caviar is dirt cheap in Iran, so who can resist?), only to find himself facing a handgun and an angry revolutionary, Farhad (Hamid Dehghani), disguised as a waiter. From that point on, Askari’s play shares some glancing characteristics with Katori Hall’s 2009 play, The Mountaintop, in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spends his last night on earth at the Lorraine Motel, where a maid turns out to be a harbinger of King’s fate.
Askari’s play is a highly watchable and often quite funny piece. Of course, we know Warhol didn’t die in Iran. Instead, he died at 58 of complications from gallbladder surgery in 1987—a surgery made complicated by the earlier damage caused by Solanas’s bullet.
According to Taylor Mead, a writer and performer in Warhol’s films who was also quoted in Stein’s book: “Andy died when Valerie Solanas shot him. He’s just somebody to have at your dinner table now. Charming, but he’s the ghost of a genius. Just a walking ghost.”
That certainly feels like an apt description of Lindley’s Warhol at first. He enters through the audience, and tells us, “Oh hey, I don’t really like talking in public. I’d rather just sit and watch—like you.” Lindley, who rocks the artist’s famous silver wig (designed by Natalia Castilla) nails Warhol’s air of fey distraction, the affected manchild who, even after years as an art world superstar, seems starry-eyed himself about things like having dinner at the Ford White House (which is where he made the connection with the Shah and Empress in the first place).
He’s also about as apolitical an artist as you can find, telling his would-be captor, “I find politics abstract.” But that’s part of his appeal as a target for Farhad, who tells Warhol, “You’re the most decadent artist alive.” “Oh, thank you,” Warhol responds, without a speck of irony. There is irony, however, in the fact that Farhad’s group doesn’t really want much more out of the kidnapping attempt than publicity, which is something Warhol understands quite well. (And really, what was Solanas’s attack but a reaction to being denied a slice of Warholian superstardom?)
As is de rigueur in two-character, one-set plays of this nature, the point of the story is that both these men will reveal more to each other (and thus to the audience) than they intend, and may in fact find that they are less far apart psychologically and emotionally than they imagined.
Warhol and Farhad both carry literal scars of their trauma. Lindley’s Warhol pulls up his shirt to show the surgical map Solanas’s attack left on his torso (along with the girdle he has to wear to hold his battered internal organs in place), while Farhad’s back carries deep indentations and welts from the torture he endured at the hands of SAVAK, the Shah’s brutal secret police force. Despite Barbara Rose’s assertion to Stein, the Warhol we meet in Askari’s play seems not so much in love with death, but afraid of a painful life. (And given Solanas’s radical politics—she created the SCUM Manifesto, allegedly standing for “Society for Cutting Up Men”—it’s not surprising that Warhol would shy away even more from anything with a hint of political revolution.)
For Warhol, falling out of favor with the old Factory gang is also painful, as is being blamed for his muse Sedgwick’s death by overdose a few years earlier. Mike Tutaj’s projections cleverly mimic the repetitions of Warhol’s own prints at the top of Todd Rosenthal’s faded-but-luxurious hotel-room set. They also provide a handy way to give us a visual timeline of events and people in Warhol’s life, as well as images depicting the history of Iran. Yet paradoxically, Lindley’s Warhol also shuns the public eye, preferring to stay holed up in his room. (This too, according to Interview editor Bob Colacello, tracks with the real Warhol.)
Both men in Askari’s play also lost their fathers at a young age. It seems that art became Warhol’s surrogate daddy, while Farhad seeks to avenge the death of his own dad and free his country from the grip of the Shah’s dictatorship. That Iran would end up facing another kind of authoritarian regime after the 1979 revolution doesn’t go without mention, though Dehghani’s character breaks the fourth wall to deliver a quick and dirty history of the ways that his country has been subject to coups, invasion, and exploitation by Western powers and corporations (i.e., oil companies) for decades. (Askari’s own father is Iranian and Shiite Muslim, and his mother, as he told Helbig, “was an Episcopalian New England WASP. So growing up was with those two very distinct cultures, and I didn’t quite fit into either camp.”)
Askari has fun inserting Warhol’s own observations on himself, such as “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.” Yet as the 90-minute play progresses, both Lindley’s Warhol and Dehghani’s Farhad unpeel their layers.
The latter has studied literature in the United States, which Warhol takes as a sign that he cares about art at least as much as politics. And he’s far from a cliche of revolutionary rage. Dehghani, who is a veteran of Iranian theater with an MFA in directing from Northwestern, shows us the fear and uncertainty driving Farhad. He doesn’t really want to hurt Warhol, but he knows that failure will make him a target of both the Shah’s police and his revolutionary cohorts.
It’s clear that neither can feel fully alive without investment in something bigger than themselves: art (and, sure, the access to celebrity glamor it provides) in Warhol’s case, and the quest for justice in Farhad’s. These are literally the only things keeping them going in the face of so much emptiness and despair and loss around them.
Farhad quotes T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” but Andy Warhol in Iran ends neither with a bang nor a whimper. Instead, the image of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman who died under suspicious circumstances in September after being arrested by the “morality police,” takes over at the end of the play. (In his program bio, Dehghani dedicates his performance to “the first female-led revolution in history.”) It’s a sobering way to close out a play about two people who start out invested in the power of fame to change their worlds, yet find a fleeting moment of quiet empathy through surprisingly similar personal circumstances.