At one time, Valerie Solanas seemed the feminist ghost least likely to rise from the grave. The one and only member of the Society for Cutting Up Men, she was just too mad and too bad. But less than 10 years after her death in 1988, this unlikely spectre began to stir. First came Mary Harron’s film I Shot Andy Warhol, then Carson Kreitzer’s play Valerie Shoots Andy, and George Coates’s all-female musical version of Up Your Ass, the play Solanas accused Warhol of stealing. Now Karen Houppert adds Tragedy in Nine Lives, which presents the Solanas-Warhol encounter as a kind of Greek tragedy. Of course, what lives on after all these years is Solanas’s Medea-like fury and poisonous resentment. The author of the SCUM Manifesto is probably destined to be an icon of female rage for as long as sexism lasts.
Tragedy in Nine Lives is set in Warhol’s Factory, complete with walls of crinkly foil, “superstars” in shades, and spectators perched in the round on couches, chairs, and pillows—all very groovy. And it’s a musical. A three-piece rock band, the Lowly Turds (Alexander MacSween, Aaron Maxwell, Stephen Nunns), adds a Velvet Underground mood and accompanies the six songs. And we come in knowing the tragedy we’re headed for.
Houppert is also a journalist (and formerly a colleague here at the Voice) whose previous stage work includes The Packwood Papers. Based on the sexual harassment investigation into Senator Bob Packwood, that script incorporated actual text from his lurid and pathetic diaries. In Nine Lives, Houppert quotes from the SCUM Manifesto and newspaper articles, but her scenarios aren’t intended to re-create the real relationship between Warhol and Solanas. The play presents Warhol as fascinated by her. In real life, apparently, he just tolerated her.
T. Ryder Smith seems appropriately disembodied as Andy, while Juliana Francis damps down her own glamour to play a fierce and indecorous Valerie. Houppert’s script makes them seem polar opposites: he cool, successful, deadpan verging on catatonic; she uncool, failed, a motormouth. Warhol says his highly praised work has no meaning, while Solanas brandishes a ratty manuscript no one wants and thinks it holds the key to the universe. Despite these polarities, the play does not seem schematic. Still, Warhol begins to look like a logical target for her. Again, that isn’t true to life, since she actually set out to shoot her publisher but couldn’t find him. Warhol was available.
His work has conceptual weight, while hers is just a screed. Yet both are visionary in their own way. When I first read the SCUM Manifesto in the early ’70s, I thought it utterly repellent. But like many rants, it contains a kernel of unvarnished truth—about the corroding impact of sexism. There’s an Ondine character in this play whose anti-woman diatribes almost balance Solanas’s screwy man-hating. And a Reporter appears, to misunderstand and misrepresent everyone to Middle America; his drug-induced transformation from man to drag queen, if not woman, seems the least thought out part of Nine Lives.
Another complaint Solanas has with Warhol and Pop artists in general is that they’re ironic. They don’t believe in anything. This, she says, will be the ruin of the ’60s and the end of questioning the status quo.
No doubt she’d start shooting up the joint if she saw a performance of Marc Spitz’s farce, Gravity Always Wins. But remember—she’s a nut.
Gravity is a demented, untelevisable sitcom in which dysfunction is pushed to the max. Every character in this show would do well to be divorcing, departing, or trying to get disowned. Of course, if they did that, where would the fun be?
I can’t divulge much plot without giving away the jokes for those who take their humor very dark. Suffice it to say that it opens with a father and his two grown sons seated around a kitchen table, the father demanding that everyone speak French, though he himself does not know French, though he insists that he is in fact speaking French. Dad, by the way, is dressed like Michael Jackson (the white-glove era) and becomes more Michael-ish as the play progresses. The packed house I saw it with was loving it; I was not.