Andy Warhol in Iran, the 2022 play by Brent Askari receiving its Chicago premiere at Northlight Theatre, is a frequently funny 70-minute one-act centered on an imaginary encounter between the artist and a young revolutionary during the very real 1976 visit Warhol made to Tehran to take Polaroids of the empress he used as the basis of a commissioned portrait.
That’s the superficial take on this two-hander crisply directed by B.J. Jones and starring Rob Lindley as a bemused and amusing Warhol and Hamid Dehghani as the impassioned Farhad, a would-be revolutionary who shows up at the artist’s hotel room to kidnap him in hopes of generating global publicity for the movement to overthrow the Shah and avenge those persecuted, tortured and killed by his brutal secret police agency, SAVAK. As the play progresses, we see Warhol’s famous paintings and images of the soon-to-come Iranian Revolution playing out on a sequenced screen positioned above the stage. Below, we get the latest variation on the story of two people who traverse a broad cultural gulf to discover they have much more in common than either imagined possible.
And on that basis, Andy Warhol in Iran is a fine night out at the theatre. You’re in and out in less time than it takes to stream a Netflix original movie and you can leave feeling that you’ve lightly grappled with a few of life’s big questions while enjoying a handful of genuine laughs.
Upon deeper consideration, though, Andy Warhol in Iran too often takes the easiest dramatic path. The revolutionary–performed with the right note of uncertainty by Dehghani, a director, playwright and actor who was born and raised in Iran–has personal reasons for wanting the Shah deposed. Religion does not play into the discussion, taking a thorny aspect of the historical moment completely out of the equation. And this Warhol is almost childishly naive. That was certainly the public persona he presented to the world, but a more nuanced depiction, one that explored the likely savvy guy behind that persona, would be welcome.
But that would require Askari to do a lot of speculating about the complexities of Warhol’s true nature, because the artist was deeply committed to artifice, even in his diary entries. So in the end, surface is all we really have access to when it comes to Andy Warhol. That playfully enigmatic nature is as much a part of his enduring appeal as his art.
In fairness, then, a superficial exploration of the supposedly liberal Warhol’s fawning, transactional relationships with autocrats like the Shah and Imelda Marcos is probably all we can expect from the available source material. Andrew Warhola didn’t just drop the final a from his last name, he shifted the letter to the end of person and hid behind the resulting persona throughout his adult life, sunglasses, wigs and all.
Still, when Warhol excuses himself for consorting with these devils by noting the regime that came after the Shah was just as violent and repressive as the one it replaced, it leaves a sour taste given the brave sacrifices so many Iranian women are currently making to protest the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini last September. Nearly 600 protesters have died so far in the effort to reclaim basic human rights. And while it is undeniably true that too many revolutionary efforts end with the imposition of new and different forms of repression, that is far from always the case. Just ask someone who lived in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall what they think of such facile pronouncements.
In a world full of people deploying cynical justifications for their choice to ignore injustice and stay the most comfortable course, I’m not sure we need the ghost of Andy Warhol giving them cover.
Photo by Jeff Kurysz