Valerie Solanas, the mentally ill woman who shot Andy Warhol in 1968, has had a remarkably long run. Her SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men), which called for the overthrow of the government, the elimination of the money system, and the destruction of the male sex, has reportedly been translated into more than a dozen languages. She has been the subject of books, plays, musical compositions, TV shows and movies; both Lilli Taylor and Lena Dunham have played her.
And now, 30 years after her death at the age of 52 in a hotel in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, the Norwegian-French company Plexus Polaire, led by extraordinary artist Yngvild Aspeli, has turned Valerie Solanas into a puppet. Several puppets, actually.
It’s the best thing they could have done. Puppetry redeems “Chambre Noire,” as it does “King Kong” and “Frozen,” except more so, because nobody is likely to accuse those Broadway shows of glorifying a fictional reindeer or a giant ape.
In the hour-long show, which is running through Sunday as part of the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, Aspeli presents Solanas as a human-size puppet terminally ill during her last days in that San Francisco hotel room. She is so convincingly brought to life that it was sometimes difficult to discern who was the puppet and who the human manipulating her. There was another life-size puppet of Solanas in the courtroom where she was tried and convicted of attempted murder.
There’s also a child puppet who at one point clings to the human in amusing, life-like ways. An Andy Warhol puppet rides on Valerie’s back until she shoots him off her. But even more remarkable are the puppet….parts. The human stands behind two fake but convincing women’s legs that seem to become part of her body, and then engages in some erotic/lewd gymnastics anatomically impossible for mere humans. Later, the human walks on multiple human-like legs, like a spider.
The puppets are not all that are impressive about the production. Video designer David Lejard-Ruffet and lighting designer Xavier Lescat create an array of light patterns and projections that jump out at the audience in sometimes arresting ways (though the cascading neon signs that are apparently supposed to represent New York more accurately conjure up Las Vegas.)
Much effort went into the stagecraft of this show. Percussionist Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen presents an inventive, moody soundscape that adds to the thick atmosphere of dread. Guro Moe Skumsnes Moe has composed original music. (I’d love to know what Pierre Tual did exactly; he’s credited as “outside eye.”) But there’s no way to avoid completely the subject of the story, which is inspired by a Swedish novel by Sara Stridsberg entitled Drömfakulteten (translated as “The Faculty of Dreams” or “The Dream Faculty”), which has been described as a discomforting fictionalized account of Solanas’ life and death. Solanas’ imagined rants (“My diagnosis is really angry”) are the least interesting aspect of “Chambre Noir.”
Under the Radar’s terminally hip description of Solanas in its marketing material comes close to despicable – “the first intellectual whore, writer, radical feminist, creator of the SCUM Manifesto, the woman who shot Andy Warhol… A character that is complex, multi-sided, outrageous and absolutely human.” The glee it expresses for this pathetic figure of violence is disturbing.
But of course the festival wasn’t the first to do this, and won’t be the last. Stridsberg’s novel has been translated into English and repackaged as “Valerie,” with a publication date in August.
Under the Radar at the Public Theater
Directed by Yngvild Aspeli and Paola Rizza
Actress Puppeteer: Yngvild Aspeli
Percussionist: Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen
Dramaturg: Pauline Thimonnier
Outside eye: Pierre Tual
Music: Guro Moe Skumsnes Moe
Puppets: Yngvild Aspeli, Pascale Blaison & Polina Borisova
Costumes: Sylvia Denais
Lighting Designer: Xavier Lescat
Video Designer: David Lejard-Ruffet
Sound Design and Video Manager: Antony Aubert