Imagining Warhol Imagining Broadway

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Raja Feather Kelly’s Andy Warhol’s 15 (Color Me, Warhol) is a big, beautiful, occasionally disappointing but generally spectacular mess, playing at Dixon Place through April 25. It’s the fifth iteration in Kelly’s ongoing engagement with Warhol’s aesthetics, life, and legacy, which began (almost abortively) with Andy Warhol’s Drella (I love you faye driscoll) a couple years ago, back in late 2013, a show the Invisible Dog played host to that was originally scheduled for DNA, prior to that institution’s abrupt closure. More or less everyone who saw it was duly impressed.

Which doesn’t surprise me: though I regrettably missed that show (including its reprisal) I already knew Raja from his work with Zoe Scofield in A Crack in Everything four-some years ago. But based on what I saw last weekend at Dixon Place, I didn’t remotely have the full measure of him as an artist. Yes, I knew he was a fantastic dancer. But I wasn’t prepared for either the coolly and calmly composed nightmare vision of Warhol’s dispassive persona that Raja evoked onstage, or the level of confidence and accomplishment this young (27!) director/choreographer brought to creating a show. Whatever else, Andy Warhol’s 15 proves that Kelly is an artist to be followed attentively.

At two and a half hours’ run-time, and featuring a series of semi-chance-based conceptual narratives that loop back on one another in compelling ways, Andy Warhol’s 15 is, at heart, a show built around a familiar conceit: It’s a process-based piece that teaches its audience how to engage with the material it explores. Think the Rude Mechs’ Method Gun, but instead of a documentary piece about a avant-garde production of A Streetcar Named Desire, here we have Kelly’s imagined realization of Andy Warhol’s staging of A Chorus Line.

Whether or not Warhol himself actually contemplated such a thing, I can’t independently confirm. Within the show, Kelly—in one of several lecture sequences—explains he was inspired by notes from Warhol’s diaries from the late 1980s, shortly before his sudden death in 1987, in which the artist mentioned an interest in staging a  A Chorus Line. Leaving aside whether this particular detail is true (and I have no reason to believe it isn’t), Kelly does a fantastic job of making the case for why Warhol would have been provoked by the musical. The controversy over A Chorus Line‘s creation—it was based on interviews with struggling Broadway chorus members who were not compensated for their life stories—would have appealed to Warhol, whose work often touched on the intersection of celebrity and self-exploitation.

And of course A Chorus Line is a great model for a process-based show, since it is, itself, a show about making another show. Such are the odd tendrils that Kelly weaves together to make his piece.

The performance opens in unsettling fashion, with the audience forced onto the stage, the seating blocked off by caution tape. A series of moments, which I will let speak to the experience of the show, then unfold. First, Kelly himself enters, singing the national anthem. A singer comes in afterward, to perform a haunting, elegiac version of Lana del Rey’s “Born to Die” accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. At some point, Beth Graczyk–a performer I know from my Seattle days, where she was a member of the well-regarded performance group Salt Horse–enters, doing a purposefully “bad” rehearsal of a given text, which has something to do with the necessity of death occurring in a written text, and which ends with her dramatically ordering a pizza for the audience. At which point Kelly interrupts to inform us that (1) eventually a pizza will be ordered, so we do need to share our vegetarian preferences, and (2) that we should recall exactly where we are standing so we can re-stage this moment when the delivery occurs to “fool” the delivery person into thinking that that this is, in fact, a party, rather than a “staged” moment in a performance in which the unwitting soul is cast as a momentary performer.

I’ll refrain from describing the rest of the show in detail (it’s far more compelling in the seeing than the telling). But in brief, what follows is an episodic series of video sequences, dance routines, competitions, person narratives, and lectures, interspersed with an ongoing refrain that “you will eventually see Andy Warhol’s 15 (Color Me, Warhol),” which is of course a sleight-of-hand: What Kelly has done is turn A Chorus Line’s story of the persons who make up the nameless chorus in a Broadway musical into a sort of chance-operation borrowed from Warhol’s own techniques as an artist, particularly with regard to the famous “screen tests,” in which the subjects were filmed under the assumption that the screen test was about to start.

The final scene of the show features Elaine K. once again returning to the stage, this time to perform an equally haunting version of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” For lack of a better metaphor, the distance from Lana Del Rey’s vapid ode to romanticized early death to Daft Punk’s vapid club hit about getting laid is the subversive journey Kelly wants to take us on. Warhol was the ne plus ultra of celebrating fame and glamorizing celebrity narrative. If Del Rey, with glorification of celebrity and death, is the Marilyn Diptych (1962) meets Green Car Crash (1963), then Daft Punk’s shallow self-satisfaction is the Warhol of  Studio 64/Interview magazine Warhol. Kelly’s genius is in how he ties these polarities to the narrative arc of A Chorus Line.

There’s so much to note in this ambitious production it’s hard to know where to start. Like Witness Relocation’s Daily Life Everlasting, Andy Warhol’s 15 features an incredibly sexy and compelling cast of performers. “Sexy” risks sounding condescending or looks-based, but I don’t know what other word to use. Given that the show is basically pitting a dozen performers against one another in an ongoing competition, it says something that nearly every one of them is compelling in their own right. And Kelly himself deserves recognition for his role as the director channeling Warhol: aloof, incidentally cruel, dispassionate, and incredibly charismatic.

If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that it doesn’t quite come together. Or rather, the omnipresence of death below the representational shallowness of Warhol’s (and A Chorus Line’s) vision of “fame” doesn’t quite work how Kelly intends. Andy Warhol’s 15 reaches its climax in a movement sequence opposite a video collage of real and fictional suicides and deaths that comes off as too heavy-handed. Of course, the show makes numerous references to Anne Sexton that—at least the night I saw it—were more confusing than anything but suggest that this notion of death is meant to be a part of the journey, and it may be that the show’s chance operations distracted from or minimized this element. In any event, the night I saw it, the show seemed to collapse death into little more than shallow representation with no human weight, which, if that was the intent, is not only bizarre but hurtful.

In any event, that ambiguity speaks to the show’s weakness. It’s long, big, and complicated, and in the end, there’s not quite a sufficient pay-off. Toward the end, the performers begin to mention that their intent is to create a singular choreographic gesture to sum up the “research” they’ve done, which, under Kelly’s “direction” (I add scare quotes because this is performed) is essentially a brief phrase from the most famous number in A Chorus Line, when the main characters in the show are now cast within the diegetic device and become “mere” chorus members. It’s the tragedy of A Chorus Line that the human drama that constitutes its plot is all in the service of earning those performers a role that renders them anonymous. Kelly wants to make this choreography a singular gesture which, refracted through Warhol’s obsessive documentation of self-exploitation, is equally tragic for his cast. And Kelly comes close.

Which is not to say the show is bad or not worthwhile. Quite the opposite. What Kelly has staged in Andy Warhol’s 15 is an incredibly ambitious attempt to deal with a vast array of concepts and ideas. It’s incredibly ambitious, and I’ll take an artist aiming high and coming up just a wee bit short over the easy and self-satisfied any day. Or to put it another way, if this is Kelly not pulling it off, God damn I can’t wait till he actually does.

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