I’m standing alone in line at the bottom of a stairwell. In front of me is a group of gregarious theatre types; behind me is a middle-aged woman complaining to her androgynous, middle-aged companion about how horrible and uncomfortable waiting in such a narrow hallway is.
Gerard Malanga comes down the steps and thanks everyone for coming to the party he and Andy Warhol are throwing for Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto — a radical call for an all-woman world free of the destructive, controlling nature of men. Malanga leads the 20 partygoers upstairs, past a kickboxing studio full of guys who peer at us, bemused, into a Factory-esque party space.
From start to finish, Andy Warhol Presents: Valerie is an immersive theatre experience. Fringe Festival-goers take on the role of audience and participants in an evening that is a perfect balance of wild, chaotic, frenetic Factory culture and airtight theatre. A number of other guests interact with audience members as we settle into the space, chatting, flirting, all of us excited about the inevitable appearance of Warhol (Ben Hayward). Hayward and cast are on from the moment they start interacting with the audience — Hayward, himself, is an exquisite Warhol replete with soft-voiced, dry, off-handed remarks, amplified by his Factory-ites who swarm about him, hungry for attention from the famous pop artist.
Eventually, Solanas (a very aptly cast Ali Richardson) appears, and thus begins the main drama of the evening, an introduction to Solanas and a presentation of her manifesto. The other party-goers become Solanas’s unwilling Greek chorus as she presents her ideals of the destructive nature of men and the ways they exert control over women. Richardson as Solanas is unhinged, screeching; she gets in the face of men at the party, she insults them, she swaggers around. I flinch a couple of times when she catches my eye.
Especially at the Fringe, the mere suggestion of audience participation can be cringe-making, but in the capable hands of Fail Better Theatre, I find myself having a fantastic time. The evening is exactly what theatre should be: play, with the actors and the audience breaking down the barriers to get at something living and incredible. They capture the essence of the Factory without worrying about the inclusion of anachronisms or meta-knowledge. They involve the audience in a number of different, fun ways and make you feel like you’re part of the evening — because really, if someone wasn’t there to watch events unfold, much like the real Factory culture, it’d just be a bunch of crazy people screaming at each other.
The politics of the piece are interesting, as well. Solanas is at once victim and villain, much like she was in real life, but Warhol is definitely the antagonist. She presents her work, and it’s a little scary because it all makes sense. At one point Warhol dismisses her, and her rebellious chorus engages in an attention-grabbing explosion of violent expression, drowning out an increasingly desperate Solanas. At that point the audience gets the chance to take a candy-communion with Warhol. I am with Solanas up to that point, but as I approach an enthroned Warhol he purrs, “Wow, you’re gorgeous,” and I feel glowingly happy and totally seduced . . . but somewhere in the back of my mind, something is nagging. I can understand how someone who’s radical, intense, maybe unhinged but with some really good ideas about society would feel about being hijacked by the attention-seeking party people who surrounded Warhol. I realize that Solanas has temporarily disappeared, and as the evening advertised, someone is going to get shot.