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A CurtainUp Review

Culture of Desire
By Les Gutman

I am on record as a lover and supporter of program notes, those juicy tidbits of dramaturgical data a theater company chooses to share with its audience. Yet I must say that I wish I'd never seen the note by director/conceiver Anne Bogart included in the playbill for this production. Had I not, I think I would have been satisfied to sit back and enjoy it. I would have called it a meticulously choreographed fantasia on the life and times of Andy Warhol, as seen through the lens of Dante Alighieri.

Trouble is, Ms. Bogart had other pretensions, and she spelled them out. The following quote articulates them:" Americans were once citizens and then we became consumers. Many of us live in a constant state of desire for things: objects, lifestyles, wealth, fame. What does it do to a person to be raised and educated as a consumer rather than a citizen? What is it to be born into a culture where fulfillment of desire through the abnegation of individuality and responsibility is the norm? What does it mean personally, politically and spiritually to be treated as a lifetime customer? What happens to our psyche when incessantly targeted to buy?"

Having raised the questions, it is only fair that the play be called upon to attempt an answer. It does not. Although this enjoyable, highly stylized performance has obvious artistic merit, its random, superficial survey of the Warhol phenomenon, or of the broader subject of consumerism, fails as any sort of intellectual exercise. Stated differently, it is entertaining but not especially illuminating.

The entertainment: Bogart and her SITI colleagues have dreamed up is visually interesting and often quite clever and funny. We follow Warhol (Kelly Maurer) on a journey beginning on the day in 1974 he is shot by Varerie Solanis. His tourguide (Bogart's version of Dante's Vergil) is Diane Vreeland, played here by a man in drag. (The playbill lists the cast not by character but simply as "A" for Andy and "B" for everyone else. As a result, without engaging in an ethnic match game of names and faces, there's no way to give credit where it's due.)

Maurer's Andy is like a feather, floating through his life, sometimes in awe, sometimes in fear and sometimes in euphoria. He manages to encounter most of the people and images with whom he is popularly associated. The trip is also punctuated by a mantra of Warholisms, the chorus of which is an exchange with Vreeland: "What have you learned?/I don't know." Vreeland is the core of the piece's comic element, and the fine touches here (a handbag discarded by being hurled offstage whenever it is no longer desired, dry hysterical bits in which she parodies an art critic explicating Warhol's paintings, among others) outweigh a more general lack of depth in characterizations.

Some of the scenes (the production seems more in the nature of a revue than a single work) contain particularly inventive ideas: the opening scene makes remarkably agile use of shopping carts; a classroom scene transforms corrugated boxes* into old-fashion school desks. (The most prominent element of Neil Patel's set is a group of huge rolling carts containing rows of these boxes.) Viewed in this way, the show reveals the style in Bogart's work that has drawn attention to her.

Bogart's SITI collaborators include a fairly fixed group of designers as well as the company of actors. They work in harmony to create the visual images we see. Patel's set, aside from the aforementioned boxes, consists mostly of an enormous, striking mural -- three identical panels evoking something far closer to Dante than Warhol. Mimi Jordan Sherin has lit the scenes with an abundance of carefully chosen resources. James Schuette's costumes, much in keeping with my feeling about the show as a whole, seem a bit perfunctory -- relatively accurate as far as they go, with references familiar enough to make identifications, but lacking in any depth of detail.

There is no shortage of material on Warhol: books, including the diaries, films and of course the art. Plenty has also been written about consumerism and society. Bogart claims to have researched these subjects beginning in 1995 and continuing through at least 1997. Why, then, does her play say little more than one could gain from an afternoon of casual reading

*Editor's Note: The corrugated boxes were inspired by Warhol's "time capsule" cardboard boxes in which he saved drawings, play programs , White House invitations, letters, newspapers, and anything else that he touched in a given day -- some 600 boxes.

Conceived and directed by Anne Bogart 
with Kelly Maurer, Akiko Aizawa, J Ed Araiza, Ellen Lauren, Jefferson Mays, Karenjune Sanchez and Stephen Webber 
Scenic Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: James Schuette 
Lighting Design: Mimi Jordan Sherin 
Noize aka Sound Design: Darron L. West
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street (Bowery/2 AV) (212) 460 - 5475 
Peformances began 9/06/98; opened 9/16/98 for a limited run with unspecified closing date--Closed 10/11/98, earlier than anticipated and prompted by very so-so reviews!  
Reviewed by Les Gutman September 17, 1998

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