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Tragedy in 9 Lives

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The live music being played when you enter the ToRoNaDa Theater at PS 122 may be overly loud, but it's certainly not superfluous. It's but the initial audio element of a boggling and occasionally baffling evening of theatre. It's one of many integral parts of Karen Houppert's Tragedy In 9 Lives, the new production by the Sightlines Theater Company that seeks to recreate the heyday of Andy Warhol's Factory in look, sound, and spirit.

In terms of all-encompassing theatricality, they've succeeded admirably. Uncompromisingly directed by Stephen Nunns, Tragedy In 9 Lives is a work where, despite glimpses of a traditional narrative, the line between audience and performer is heavily blurred. Yes, the audience is asked to sit and listen to characters' interpretations of events, but while watching, don't they become a part of what they're observing?

It's that question that the play seeks to address, if not necessarily answer outright. With silver pillows adorning the floor, foil covered walls, and a number of television monitors and projection devices, the set (by Ben Keightley) encourages the audience's own emotional experimentation with art and the attempts to find a boundary it feels comfortable with. The production's ensemble members, clad in black and silver in the tempting/taunting late 1960s style (by Nancy Brous) toe that line as well before the performance starts, putting on their own shows with flashlights, dancing, and writing about on the furniture.

Where reality stops and art begins is also an issue of vital importance to the characters, including Warhol himself (T. Ryder Smith) and militant feminist Valerie Solanas (Juliana Francis). The physically violent results of their professional and personal intermingling are already the stuff of modern art history; from first meeting to final gunshot, in terms of sheer facts, Tragedy In 9 Lives provides no new insights.

Houppert and Nunns are far more interested in the effects of their art on the lives of others. Warhol's almost improvisatory method of filmmaking enlists the work of Ondine (James "Tigger" Ferguson), who can't hold back his own rage when faced with criticism he easily applies toward others, while a reporter (Chris Spencer Wells) becomes so enmeshed in the artistic freedom (and, yes, the drugs) of the period that he can't help but become a part of it.

But their presence - like the video animations of Warhol's works or any of the show's six songs (with titles such as "One Blue Pussy," "With A Gun," and "I Shot Mary Magdelene") - contribute enormously to the panoply of the late 1960s underground culture the show documents. If certain characters or depicted situations don't always contribute a great deal dramatically, it's impossible to imagine Tragedy In 9 Lives reaching the same level of intriguing complexity or atmospheric effectiveness if even one were missing.

Houbbert's writing in those segments is strong enough to call attention how slowly-paced and abstruse her direct work is with the primary Warhol-Solanas plot; the rest of the show has the tendency to move around most of these moments. The muted energy Smith and Francis bring to their roles results in a fair amount of one-note, occasionally stammering speech which may be historically accurate, but is not always pleasant to listen to for long periods.

Earlier this year, the Public's Radiant Baby provided a campier, almost vaudevillian Warhol; hardly an ideal solution for this play, it was a more creative way of solving the problem of a difficult historical figure. But Tragedy In 9 Lives, bursting with visual, aural, and intellectual interest, still serves as an intriguing tribute to Warhol's work and foibles, even though the show is more interested in examining from as many angles as possible the artistic movement Warhol inspired, and the one he was a part of.

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Sightlines Theater Company
Tragedy in 9 Lives
Through August 2
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
ToRoNaDa Theater at PS 122, 150 First Avenue at 9th Street
Schedule and Tickets: SmartTix at 212.868.4444