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Theater: ‘Pop!’ at Studio 2ndStage

By Celia Wren,

It’s 1 p.m. on a Saturday, and on 14th Street NW, Andy Warhol and his art are getting another 15 minutes of fame. In the Studio Theatre’s Stage 4 space, beneath a chandelier of paper bags, actor Tom Story — sunglasses, leather jacket, hair streaked bleached-blond — is exuding ironic detachment on a set shaped like an egg. Nearby, performers coil themselves gymnastically atop silver scaffolding; someone is roaming around with what seems to be a Bolex camera; and a Studio assistant production manager is crouched, not far from a wind machine and a stack of jettisoned Polaroids, fiddling with facsimiles of dollar bills.

It’s a rehearsal for “Pop!,” the eccentric Andy-Warhol- whodunit musical that is taking a madcap trip back to the Sixties, starting July 13, at adventuresome Studio 2ndStage. “Pop!,” the brainchild of writer Maggie-Kate Coleman and composer Anna K. Jacobs, recalls the atmosphere and personalities of the Factory, the famous studio and hangout where Warhol reigned as genius and guru. But, with wacky audacity, the musical imagines Warhol and his hangers-on as characters in a murder-mystery burlesque, using, as narrative hook, the real (nonfatal) 1968 shooting of Warhol by the script-writing wannabe, and Society for Cutting Up Men founder, Valerie Solanis.

Sleuthing sequences feature Warhol sidekicks such as Edie Sedgwick and the speed-freak legend Ondine as suspects or gumshoes; a western-style barroom brawl, starring the abstract expressionists as paintbrush-wielding gunslingers; and the reinvention of Warhol’s celebrity images (Marilyn Monroe, Mao Zedong) as mug shots. Such tongue-in-cheek scenes unspool to Jacobs’s eclectic score.

Yet, while the musical would appear to bubble with cartoonish zaniness, the Studio production — which stars Story as Warhol and runs through Aug. 7 — incorporates historical authenticity, too. For this second-ever presentation of “Pop!” (the show had its premiere, in a somewhat different form, at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2009), director Keith Alan Baker has devised an environmental staging aimed at immersing audiences more fully in the aesthetic and social ferment of the late 1960s Factory.

To the seven principal roles in the musical, Baker and his assistant directors — Jennifer Harris and Hunter Styles — have added five parts for ensemble members who will play Factory habitues modeled on historical figures such as Paul Morrissey, Warhol’s filmmaking associate. During the show, and in the minutes before it, these ensemble members will be busy silk-screening (the process that enabled Warhol to create his celebrated Campbell’s soup can images), painting, taking photographs and making videos that will be projected, live, as part of the extravaganza.

In short, says Baker, who is the artistic director of Studio 2ndStage, while the script and score of “Pop!” focus on a particular chapter in Warhol’s life — the 1968 shooting and its roots in the Factory groupies’ resentments and craving for fame — the Studio rendering will “look at the bigger picture.”

“We don’t want this to be a gallery show,” says Styles, a director and playwright who is a founding member of the District’s Wayward Theatre. Instead, he says, “Pop!” audiences will have the sense of walking into an artistic “beehive.”

“To create the Factory mentality, Warhol had people all around doing things every minute of every day,” emphasizes Harris, who is an assistant production manager and casting associate for Studio and who is in charge of art wrangling for “Pop!”

During the rehearsal, Harris pointed out various Warhol- quoting artworks-in-progress — several of which will continue to be in-progress for the run. A semi-completed painting of enormous pink knives hugged a back wall. Nearer stood Brillo cartons, standing in for Warhol’s iconic grocery-box replicas. And black-and-white copies of dollar bills paid tribute to masterpieces such as “200 One Dollar Bills” (a silkscreen that Sotheby’s sold for $43.8 million two years ago).

Harris indicated a silver toilet prominently positioned on the set — an allusion to the Factory decor famously painted silver by Warhol associate Billy Linich. The toilet had been lying around Studio’s property and was given a glam makeover. “We find things and Andy-fy them,” she said.

To fashion a fully Andy-fied world for “Pop!,” Harris and her colleagues are budgeting for 20 gallons of silver paint, 1,000 feet of aluminum foil, 1,500 paper bags and 150 feet of Mylar for balloons. Additional material may be required to evoke Warhol’s Oxidation series, whose ­medium was urine on copper- covered canvas.

Studio’s resident paint artisan, Luciana Stecconi, has been recruited to share tips on techniques such as silk-screening with actors who’ll be engaged in such activities during the show. “Warhol camp!” Baker says in an amused tone, describing the training stint the ensemble extras are undergoing.

But the performers will not be the only ones caught up in the conjuring of Warhol’s art: The audience will be, too. For starters, the seating area in Stage 4 will be elliptical, mirroring an elliptical stage that recalls Warhol’s egg paintings. The egg series is “a work that we don’t see much of,” observes set and properties designer Giorgos Tsappas, who found this relative obscurity refreshing, given the high profile of, say, the Campbell’s cans, or Warhol’s cow wallpaper.

“What I told Keith right away is, ‘We’ll have no cows!’ ” Tsappas says.

Not all the audience participation will be so subtle. Baker and his assistant directors are factoring a hefty dollop of interactivity into their production. In a site-specific touch, theater-goers will access Stage 4 through an unusual route, involving little-seen Studio spaces transformed (with sculptures, film and more) to suggest the Factory.

Displays of dance blueprints, modeled on Warhol’s Dance Diagram paintings, will invite ticket holders to a little D.I.Y. hoofin’. And Harris says audience members who show up dressed as a historical Factory personality will be allowed to take seats in special VIP silver chairs.

“To some degree, [audiences] will be able to choose how they will experience the show,” Baker said.

Baker and Styles say the par­ticipatory approach and unconventional use of space are ­designed to make “Pop!” a “happening”—an avant-garde format arguably in tune with the three-ring-circus party-and-art-lab atmosphere of the Factory itself.

Of course, to a layman, there might seem to be an inherent tension between the straight-from-the-archives art and the nuttiness of Coleman and Jacobs’s musical. But, says Baker, “this piece allows for this blowing up and expansion, because it is what it is. It’s fantastical and not literal.”

And there’s something about the re-contextualization that might suit Warhol’s aesthetic.

“Andy really reinvented what painting was,” Styles says. “It wasn’t about trying to see something brand-new. It was about trying to resee what was already there.”

Wren is a freelance writer.

Pop!

runs July 13 through Aug. 7 at Studio 2ndStage, Studio Theatre,

1501 14th St. NW. studiotheatre.org/plays.

© The Washington Post Company