Art and Politics Share a Bedroom in “Andy Warhol in Iran”

In 1976, Andy Warhol flew to Tehran to take Polaroids of Empress Farah Pahlavi, whom he had met with her husband, the Shah of Iran, at the White House the previous year during Gerald Ford’s administration. 

Intrigued by this fish-out-of-water story, the playwright Brent Askari admitted not seeing any dramatic possibilities in the sitting of the Empress for Warhol itself, as there was no conflict in that they were both out to use each other. He instead imagines a young Iranian radical storming into Warhol’s suite at the Tehran Hilton disguised as a bellboy delivering caviar who will confront and attempt to kidnap the world famous artist seeking for him and his cause their “15 minutes of fame.” And so, Askari has created the scintillating “Andy Warhol in Iran”, receiving its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company, which commissioned it.

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 (l-r) Nima Rakhshanifar & Henry Stram. Photo by Daniel Rader.

Henry Stram plays the pop artist, and off-handedly addresses the audience in the opening line “Oh Hey.” It is a sly, fetching, and affecting performance. We get a pretty great encapsulation of the man, the myth, and the artist who would have us believe he is all surface, but when faced with his own mortality can stop your heart and make you see the soul behind the shades. Not that he ever forsakes his vanity. Some of Stram’s best moments have him posing with his wig, or coquettishly thanking the young militant who is screaming at him that he is the most decadent artist alive. You can see both sides.

That militant, Fardhad, played by the handsome and fiery Nima Rakhshanifar, is given a lot of the heightened circumstances to carry being the author’s creation and Rakhshanifar handles it all exceptionally well. Indeed, Warhol is given a few asides to the audience but Farhad’s aside is a history of Iran’s strife “Let’s begin in 1872…” This invaluable history lesson gets a laugh with that opening line. Not just a plot device, he also has a character who we discovered studied poetry in America and has his own wounds, hopes, and dreams.

The playwright has ratcheted up the tension with a gun, sirens, suspected bugging in the hotel room, and various activities overheard out in the hall of the Tehran Hilton.  But what sparked my interest and made the play whiz by, were the heated engagements between the radical and artist touching on the meaning and worth of art, politics, and what made life worth living. Some might have their nerves jangled by being kidnapped at gunpoint. Addressing Farhad’s anger, Warhol sympathetically says “It’s hard for people who study literature to find work.” 

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 Henry Stram Photo by Daniel Rader.

Director Skip Greer has it all played full out in a quick 80 minutes on Brian Prather’s evocative set, which incorporates some really neat projections, designed by Yana Biryukova, of Iranian history as well as quite a few Warhols. Costumes by Nicole Wee, wigs and make-up by Mary Schilling-Martin, lighting design by Joyce Liao, and sound design by Dan Roach are all up to the very high BSC standards.

There are a great many questions about art and theater’s purpose in addressing the social and political climate of the times, and “Andy Warhol in Iran” proves it can be done in a very fun, smart, and moving way.

Through June 25 at Barrington Stage Company

Tickets: barringtonstageco.org

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