Andy Warhol in Iran. Playwright: Brent Askari
At: Northlight Theatre at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
Tickets: 847-673-6300 or www.Northlight.org; $30-$89. Runs through Feb. 19
The prolific 20th century gay pop artist Andy Warhol died in 1987. But Warhol and his ideals are still very much alive todaynot only in our age of relentless social media and self promotion, but on several theatrical stages.
Marvel Cinematic Universe star Paul Bettany is currently appearing on Broadway as Warhol opposite Jeremy Pope (The Inspection) as artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in Anthony McCarten's play The Collaboration. The two stars have also been contracted to play the same roles for a forthcoming film adaptation.
In the Chicago-area suburb of Glen Ellyn, a mythologized Warhol origin story is being cooked up by Buffalo Theatre Ensemble. Their production of Vince Melocchi's play Andy Warhol's Tomato runs through early March at College of DuPage.
But with Andy Warhol in Iran, Brent Askari's 2022 drama now receiving its regional premiere courtesy of Northlight Theatre in Skokie, biographical details about the pop art icon are used to feed into something bigger. Andy Warhol in Iran aims to be a dramatic morality play by historically examining 20th century art, celebrity and geopolitical complications.
The kernel of truth that inspired Askari's play has to do with Warhol's July 1976 invitation to take Polaroids of the wife of the Shaw of Iran for a painted series of portraits. Where Askari ramps up the fiction is by imagining what might have happened in Warhol's suite at the Tehran Hilton.
Askari initially allows the audience to be on Warhol's side through a blasé self-awareness and gossipy friendliness as he casually converses with a crowd. With so much celebrity name dropping, Warhol glamorously becomes People Magazine personified in Rob Lindley's fey and fetching performance.
But Askari also pulls no punches in making Warhol into a shallow and assertive artist on the make. The bigger the celebrity or political figure, the larger the potential payout to Warhol for his brand of relentlessly reproduced portraiture.
Askari's Warhol is struck with harsh reality when he meets a room service staffer named Farhad (a fiery and fully believable Hamid Dehghani). Farhad is part of a resistance group that has the conviction that taking "The Most Decadent Artist Alive" as a hostage will bring global publicity to the plight of Iranian people who are oppressed by the Shaw's brutal regime.
With a pistol in play, Askari and director BJ Jones create a tense back-and-forth as Warhol and Farhad alternate between pleading, threats and negotiations. Each characters' past pain and personal suffering gets dredged up, with political torture and America's easy-access gun violence both being highlighted.
Yet Askari also includes a lot of direct-address exposition via monologues, so at times Andy Warhol in Iran veers perilously toward a library or nursing home performance, with a costumed historical figure rattling off facts or sharing anecdotes. These moments can also feel like historically astute PowerPoint presentations, thanks to Mike Tutaj's vivid projection designs of archival photos and colorful graphics atop Todd Rosenthal's fine hotel suite set.
But overall, Askari does pose serious questions about an artists' role in society and how conscientious they should be about geopolitics. Though set nearly a half-century ago, Andy Warhol in Iran raises strong concerns about how content creators should be emotionally and politically aware amid pursuing publicity, fame and cash at all costs.
Many detest what Warhol represented in terms of commercial celebrity culture and his glib "15-minutes of fame" quote. Yet there's also no denying Warhol's impact on the art world and how we live our lives today.
Warhol's art is still prized among collectors and local gallery strollersCollege of DuPage's Cleve Carney Museum of Art in Glen Ellyn is set to host Bank of America's Andy Warhol holdings in a summer exhibition starting June 3. And as highlighted by Andy Warhol in Iran, the pop artist's celebrity-fueled life and monetary motivations are just as fascinating via fictionalization on stage and screen.