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Theatre in Review: Chambre Noir (Under the Radar/Public Theater)

Yngvild Aspeli. Photo: Benoit Schupp.

Chambre Noir (Under the Radar/Public Theater) This strange, dreamlike, compelling piece takes the audience into the mind, on her deathbed, of Valerie Solanas, one of the strangest personalities to be coughed up by the cultural gyrations of the 1960s -- and that's saying something. A graduate student, sometime prostitute, writer, and feminist, she was the founder of SCUM, aka, the Society for Cutting Up Men. If more mainstream feminists were put off by such a take-no-prisoners attitude, she wasn't kidding: Her chef d'oeuvre was The SCUM Manifesto, which, apparently, called for the removal of the male sex from the planet. She entered the halls of infamy in 1968, when she shot and nearly killed Andy Warhol. Later, portrayed as a freak in tabloid headlines and diagnosed as mentally ill, she faded away, dying in obscurity in 1988. Because of her one moment of notoriety, she has lingered on in popular culture, as the protagonist of the film I Shot Andy Warhol and as a supporting character in American Horror Story: Cult.

Yngvild Aspeli and Paola Rizza, of the France-based company Plexus Polaire, evoke this strange, fragmented, solitary life, here depicted as a series of fleeting memories as Solanas wastes away from pneumonia in her San Francisco home. In the eerie opening, she is seen in a tiny pool of light, standing on a street and hawking her manifesto not unlike a newsboy with a special edition. At first, she appears to be an actress in a mask; it soon becomes clear that she is a puppet being manipulated by Aspeli. From here on, it's one disquieting tableau after another. Dorothy, Solanas' mother, appears in scanty peignoirs and bleached blonde hair, falling into hysterics over the death of Marilyn Monroe -- clearly, her role mode in all things. Solanas' father, Louis -- who, she always insisted, abused her -- appears cradling a puppet representing his daughter -- eerily detaching and reinserting her legs. (This is done to Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," a song that may never sound the same again.) Warhol's head eerily orbits Solanas like a bad memory; later, she appears with Warhol's body clinging to her back -- a burden that she can never shake off. Dorothy returns transformed into a multi-legged high-heeled creature, a monstrous pleasure machine seemingly born of a tarantula. Repeatedly, Solanas submits to police interrogation, which ends with the question of questions: Why did she shoot Warhol?

A definitive answer is not forthcoming; ostensibly, Solanas blamed Warhol for losing the script of her play, Up Your Ass, but she continued in his orbit, even appearing in some of his films; here, she offers more motivations than Iago ever offered for his schemes against Othello. In any case, Chambre Noir casts quite a spell as it fades from one episode to the next, often broken up by effective musical sequences cued by the percussionist Ane Marthe Sorlien Holen. In addition to the stunning puppet work -- at times, it's hard to believe that Solanas isn't a living, breathing human -- David Lejard-Ruffet's video design --featuring multiple layers of neon-tinged imagery, seemingly drawn from San Francisco's Tenderloin District -- is delivered to an ever-shifting array of fringe curtains. Aided by Xavier Lescat's intently focused lighting, the stage seems to possess untold depths out of which the performers and puppets emerge. Antony Aubert's sound design, which includes nerve-rattling gunshots, also provides fine reinforcement for Guro Moe Skumsnes Moe's spectral musical score. (Sylvia Denais' costumes, which transform Aspeli into a variety of characters, are also fine.)

A demonstration of highly original stagecraft -- even if Aspeli, when not amplified, could work on her vocal projection -- Chambre Noir effectively conjures up the apocalyptic thinking that provided the darker flip side of the era of flower power. It also persuasively suggests how Solanas merged her personal traumas with some of the era's social concerns, reinventing herself as a savage feminist prophet, offering her jeremiads to an audience consisting, ultimately, only of herself. Early on, she suggests that SCUM is an international organization; on her deathbed, she is forced to face the truth. However, even if her historical position is less that of a Steinem or Freidan and closer to, say, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, she is an unforgettable character, and this troupe does her justice. Chambre Noir may be something of a bad trip for its subject, but it is likely to fascinate more than a few in the audience. -- David Barbour

(11 January 2019)

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