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Flash Review 1, 2-9:
"Up Your Ass"
Solanas at P.S. 122: No Factory Retread
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider
The woman who shot Andy
Warhol fired another shot from the grave last night on the stage
of P.S. 122, with the New York premiere, 36 years after she wrote
it, of "Up Your Ass." Valerie Solanas's protean agit-prop treatise,
which received its world premiere only last year from George Coates
Performance Works, would have heralded the arrival of a major political
satirist in 1965 had it not been lost by Warhol and posterity for
so long. Presented in 2001, however, and surprisingly, it is more
than contemporary: Where much proto-feminist theater and dance these
days, by artists young enough to be Solanas's daughter or even granddaughter,
is just so much screaming, Solanas delivers her punches with constant
hits to the funny-bone as well, making any sexist accusations of
"man-hater" secondary. "Up Your Ass," while it doesn't hold back,
holds up first and foremost as powerful artistic expression. While
much has been made about how this play predates Solanas's "SCUM
Manifesto," a seminal feminist work, "Up Your Ass" stands on its
own as a piece of sharp theater and a model, perhaps, for, not a
kinder, gentler feminist didacticism, but one with artistic teeth
to match its political bite.
The background, briefly:
Solanas submitted her manuscript, one of only two copies, to Warhol
in 1965, hoping he would produce it. Instead, he lost it and, so
the legend goes, it was her rage over this treatment of her script
that prompted Solanas to shoot Warhol. Warhol's copy was discovered
after both protagonists had passed, in a box under some film lighting
equipment, by Billy Name. "Up Your Ass" premiered January 12 of
last year in San Francisco, a few blocks from the Tenderloin hotel
where Solanas spent her last hours in 1988, dying of pneumonia.
"Up Your Ass," which
might be subtitled Bongi's adventures in hetero-macho land, is the
best kind of romp -- one with bite; and the best kind of screed
- one with satiric chops. Coates, a performance art institution
in the City by the Bay, has certainly highlighted the humor by setting
much of the script to karioki (with such rock & soul standards as
"Let's Get it On," "Because the Night," "Fever," "Try a Little Tenderness,"
and "White Rabbit" getting new lyrics. This last becomes the score
for a belly dance, "Celebration Dance: A Dance for a Turd," the
turd being on the menu of a dinner party not for a husband to eat,
but for his supplicating wife, because, she explains, "everyone
knows men have so much more respect for women who are good at eating
Did I say men? There's
only one male actor in Coates's production, which is not to say
there's only one male character. A chameleon cast of eight women
essay a variety of men, women, and everything in between. Two actresses,
Tina Marie Murray and Annie Larson, even portray men who then get
dressed up in drag as woman, the ensuing hilarity including a mind-fucking
moment where Larson chides Murray for sitting down with her/his/her
legs spread and all but revealing the family jewels. Their hilarious
banter also offers this line from Larson: "I despise men. You know,
what I'd like to be is a lesbian -- than I could be the cake and
eat it too."
At the serious heart
of "Up Your Ass" is Bongi Perez, a "queer" - quotes because, as
another reviewer has pointed out, Solanas was using this term proudly
before it became the vogue among queers to do so, and when much
of the Queer Nation was still in the closet -- and a prostitute.
Perez, some reviewers have said, is Solanas's stand-in. "I'm so
female, I'm subversive," Sara Moore's Bongi tells Mantra Plonsey's
Russell, a smooth hubby who brandishes a whole raw squid before
singing "I don't fuck, I make love," to the tune of "You're Nobody
'Til Somebody Loves You." But when Russell agrees to make an exception
in Bongi's case and have a quickie after she tempts him by opening
her fly, she turns the tables on the man and fucks him in the butt.
Did you catch that? Note
that I said, "after she tempts him." I thought I was just describing
what I saw, but really, all I saw was Moore open her fly. "Tempt"
implies a motivation -- and the motivation a man WOULD see after
a woman opens her fly. A woman might see the motivation differently
-- perhaps, for instance, she was opening her fly to challenge him.
I'm thinking of this -- of the question of how open, even in supposedly
post-feminist 2001, a male critic can truly be to receiving this
work on its own terms, as opposed to through a defensive lens --
after reading a review from the late San Francisco Examiner which
was included in the press kit.
In his January 14, 2000
review, Robert Hurwitt described Bongi as "a dyspeptic lesbian hooker
who delights in degrading her male johns and coming on to any woman
who crosses her path. An androgynous figure in black leather jacket
and trousers, she spends most of the evening casually injecting
man-hating quips -- many of them very funny -- into the dialogue."
Hmmm. Let's break-down
that paragraph, shall we?
In just about every line,
Hurwitt describes Bongi not on her own terms, but as how her identity
relates to males. She is a LESBIAN (unavailable to men for sex),
a HOOKER (well, sort of available), who delights in degrading MALES
WHO WANT TO PAY HER FOR SEX, and who COMES ON TO ANY WOMAN (not
coming on to MEN.). To hear Hurwitt tell it, her dialogue consists
almost entirely of MAN-HATING words.
Well, I beg to differ.
Longtime DI readers will know that my man-hater radar is as sensitive
as any Joe's. And yet when I look at Bongi, at least as Moore's
portrayed her, I see a woman -- yes, a woman, not an androgen --
who, despite views she has acquired after what has obviously been
some bitter experience, is still out there engaging with the world.
She does accept a square woman's invitation for dinner; she banters
jocularly with an Ed Nortonesque typical hubba-hubba male; and she
answers the square woman (Leanne Borghesi)'s belly dance with her
own "dance of the seven towels," plus her "modernistic fan dance.
I use an electric fan."
Indeed, if we look at
the author for whom Bongi is a stand in, even as the work itself
stands as a proof of her subversion, still, to try to get it out,
she was left relying on a man, Warhol.
Warhol is dead now, and
so is Solanas. A man, Coates, certainly has brought her work back
to life -- enabled, of course, by a fine female cast! -- but, based
on the Examiner review, it seems to me that the male critical hegemony
will still try to dismiss it. Hurwitt lead his article by dismissing
"Up Your Ass" as "far from a masterpiece," and saying it is "scarcely
well written enough to be an interesting artifact of mid-'60s proto-feminism,
let alone a work of art worth a man's life." He also said that "The
Fuss is more than a little overdone."
Again, I beg to differ.
I'm sure that male critics
like Hurwitt would like nothing more than for "Up Your Ass" to have
stayed under the nice glass case in the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh,
where Coates first saw it. Male critics, hell; the alumni magazine
of Princeton University (edited by a woman) which arrived in my
mailbox this week has, as it's cover story, a fawning tribute to
an alum who's gone on to edit Maxim magazine, where a woman's greatest
value is her breasts.
Point? You may have come
a long way, baby, but we as a society still have a long way to go
before Eve is fully defined beyond being one form or another of
Adam's rib. Far from being a museum piece, Valerie Solanas's "Up
Your Ass" is a clarion call. NOT a clarion call for how to hate
men and make it funny, but a call for how woman artists who want
to continue Solanas's fight -- and folks, it ain't over yet! --
can do so with a form of high art that, because of the very humor
which gives it mass appeal, has the power to truly subvert our male-centric
system and move it closer to equality.
Solanas, finally, has
come a long way, even if it took too long. Linda Moran, her sister,
told last night's audience after the curtain, "Valerie never had
a memorial service. I think this is the most appropriate place to
have the memorial. I consider this a memorial."
"Up Your Ass" continues
at P.S. 122 through February 25. The all-killer, no-filler cast
also includes veteran comic Karen Ripley (in a hilarious Home-Ec
send-up which concludes with a lesson in how-to-fuck-your-man),
Chantel Lucier, Allison Hennessy, Sharon Boggs, and Eddy Falconer.
For more info, please visit P.S.
122's web site.
Special thanks to Rosa
Mei for her valuable input on this article.
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