The Gulf between Them – a review of “Andy Warhol in Iran”

by A. Nonny Moss

In Brent Askari’s new play, “Andy Warhol in Iran,” Andy Warhol (Jeffrey Emerson) strolls out onto the stage and chats with the audience. It starts with the truth.

Fact: In 1976, Andy Warhol went to Iran to photograph the Shah’s wife,  Farah Pahlavi. Shortly after his visit, the Iranians rose up, rebelled and removed the Shah from power.

Fiction: In his hotel room, Warhol is confronted with Farhad (Arian Rad),  who is somewhere on a sliding scale from freedom fighter to terrorist, depending on your point of view.  He and his cohorts decide to kidnap the artist to shine a light on the Shah’s tyranny.

Warhol  is the perfect representation of America. Not only is he an artist, but he is a self-made man known for his extreme heights of decadence. A cultural elite who is the epitome of crass commercialism, a prized capitalist pig.

Warhol admits to be in Iran only for the bacon (cash, moolah, scratch, etc.), which is probably a particularly poor choice of words in a Muslim country.  He wishes to stay apolitical, but Farhad makes the case that human suffering is beyond politics.

The two don’t mix together very well. Like oil and water-based paints.

The play is a philosophic debate between an idealist and an idea man, and the literal and figurative gulf between them (a Persian Gulf).

Andy Warhol (Jeffrey Emerson) gives us the lowdown before entering the story. Photo credit: Kristi Jan Hoover

Farhad (Arian Rad) explains the politics of Iran to his captive capitalist. Photo credit: Kristi Jan Hoover

Emerson plays Warhol with a vapid charm.  Even when Andy is at his most annoying, cloying and simpering, Emerson gives his sympathy, a likability that you won’t find in any actual footage of the artist (see Andy Warhol’s 1985 appearance on “The Love Boat” as a reference).

Side note: This version of the artist is more complex than the Andy Warhol in “Pop,” portrayed by Anthony Rapp in City Theatre’s production back in 2012.  Emerson is hilarious.

While the show is about tyranny, torture and terrorism, it’s filled with light funny moments.

Rad is powerful as Farhad. He is charismatic and charming, and, at times, frightening. Farhad is a freedom fighter in over his head. A compassionate poet who is destroyed by his country’s cruel government.

Marc Masterson, who is retiring as Co-Artistic Director,  cultivates the humor in Askari’s excellent script.

The end – no spoilers here – packs a powerful punch about how men  – and some women (like Imelda Marcos who is also mentioned in this play)  – can’t help themselves in their rise to power.  Evil corrupts. Absolute evil corrupts absolutely.

In his poem, “On Freedom,” Kahlil Gibran wrote, “And if it is the despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed.” In other words, don’t overthrow an oppressor to become an oppressor.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, I’m looking at you.

Askari reminds us – at an important time – you can’t glide through life without paying attention to politics – you have to stand up and fight for freedom every inch of the way.

-A.N. M.

“Andy Warhol in Iran” runs from April 20 to May 12 at the City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street in the Southside. For more information, click here.


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