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A CurtainUp Review
Tragedy in 9 Lives

by Les Gutman

South Side Cafe in the Theater District

The male artist -- a contradiction in terms.
---Valerie Solanas

T. Ryder Smith
T. Ryder Smith
(Photo: David Gochfeld)
As I ventured from the subway to P.S. 122, I traversed Saint Marks Place, passing the old Polish Social Hall (called the Dom) where Warhol made his first splash with an extravaganza called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The increasingly shiny block reveals few recollections of that period to its current pedestrians, many of whom could be the grandchildren of those who had been there in 1966. Entering the Mabou Mines space at P.S. 122, where Tragedy in 9 Lives is being presented, is like walking into a time warp. The space is converted into a reasonable facsimile of Warhol's Factory: scattered seating mixed with various beds, perches and a bar, most everything covered in aluminum foil. (We are offered beer, $3, by women dressed in silver lamé mini-dresses.) At one end, a rocking band plays and, on this night at least, what seems like a busload of fresh-faced teenagers fills the floor.

For those interested in Andy Warhol, his compadres and hangers-on, there exists an almost endless supply of raw material: the product of his own voyeuristic obsessions and a healthy dose of media attention. It's been well over fifteen years since Warhol's death, which is enough time for some perspective. We've had a number of films and documentaries in the last few years. Now we get Karen Houppert's play, which is not so much a re-examination as a re-visit.

If the design achieves verisimilitude, so does everything else. Warhol's film documentation of his friends was extensive; it was random and filled with drug-addled rants. As one critic related, it conveyed a "contagious lethargy". The same qualities obtain in Houppert's Tragedy. Unfortunately, they don't make great theater. The challenge in presenting a show such as this is to find a way to make it compelling; this was not a call Ms. Houppert, her director, Stephen Nunns, and company chose to embrace. So despite a few successful scenes, and a few fine performances, much of the show is an exercise in tedium.

Some of the show's best segments involve Valerie Solanas (Juliana Francis), with material culled from various interviews and her SCUM Manifesto. Oftentimes, it seems it is she, rather than Warhol (T. Ryder Smith), who is the focus of the piece. Ms. Francis effectively and believably conveys the over-the-edge Solanas. The same cannot be said for the rendition of another Warhol regular: Ondine (James "Tigger" Ferguson); he's all hackneyed spectacle, and one of the major testers of our patience. Smith, however, finds just the right tone for Warhol: aloof and elusive.

The show's major invention is a reporter (Chris Spencer Wells), who arrives straight-laced and descends into a sort of hip hell. Wells is the show's bright star, and his transformation is an impressive sight to witness. One might have hoped that Ms. Houppert would have utilized him more effectively to create structure and focus, but as he deteriorates, so does the storytelling.

The show is billed as a musical, which I suppose technically it is, but its six songs (written apparently in collaborative jam sessions involving much of the cast and band) don't do a great deal to aid the story beyond adding another layer of ambiance. Notwithstanding, I liked much of the music, and can also report that Mr. Wells, in addition to being a welcome addition to the New York acting scene, can also sing quite well.

When Cher saw The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, she is reported to have said "[i]t will replace nothing -- except maybe suicide." An overstatement here at least, but not that far off. It would take more than a bottle of beer to make this the happening it seems to want to be.

Tragedy in 9 Lives
Book by Karen Houppert, Original Music by Aaron Maxwell
Directed by Stephen Nunns
with Juliana Francis, T. Ryder Smith, James "Tigger" Ferguson, Laura Flanagan, Chris Mirto and Chris Spencer Wells (and an entourage of Johannes Brun, Sarah Lemp and Melissa Stephens)
Incidental Music: Alexander MacSween
Projections: Marilys Ernst
Choreographer: Schellie Archbold
Band: Alexander MacSween, Aaron Maxwell and Stephen Nunns Set Design: Ben Keightley
Costume Design: Nancy Brous
Lighting Design: Shaun Fillion
Sound Design: Eric Shim
A production of Sightlines Theater Company
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue (@9th ST)
Telephone: (212) 868-4444
WED - SUN @8:30; $15
Opening July 13, 2003, closing August 2, 2003
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 7/10/03 performance
Musical Numbers
  • "One Blue Pussy," music and lyrics by Alexander MacSween, Aaron Maxwell and Stephen Nunns
  • "Fuck Me Up," music and lyrics by Aaron Maxwell and Juliana Francis
  • "With a Gun," music by Aaron Maxwell, lyrics by Aaron Maxwell and T. Ryder Smith
  • "Lowly Turd," music and lyrics by Stephen Nunns
  • "When Mom was Mom," music by Aaron Maxwell, lyrics by Aaron Maxwell and T. Ryder Smith
  • "I Shot Mary Magdalene," music and lyrics by Stephen Nunns and Chris Spencer Wells

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