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A Shot at the Stage 

Up Your Ass

Wednesday, Jan 19 2000
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Anyone who's seen I Shot Andy Warhol knows Valerie Solanas did it partly because Warhol refused to produce Up Your Ass and then failed to give back the script. In fact, the script surfaced again only a couple of years ago, at the bottom of a trunk full of lighting equipment. George Coates Performance Works is now giving the play a world premiere -- 35 years after it was written and 12 years after the author died, in a Tenderloin hotel, just blocks from Coates' theater. Solanas' SCUM Manifesto (the acronym stands for the Society for Cutting Up Men), her wounding of Warhol, and the 1996 movie about the shooting have given her more notoriety than she ever enjoyed in life, and it's no exaggeration to say that everything -- the current fame, Solanas' life on the streets after jail, Warhol's eventual death -- stems from that idiot act with a pistol. Up Your Ass may be the only play produced at gunpoint across a chasm of three decades.

So -- how's the show? "A garbage-mouthed, dykey, anti-male play" is how the Solanas character describes it in the movie. Other good adjectives are: obsessive, monotonous, amateurish, funny. The best-kept secret about Valerie Solanas is that she was joking most of the time. She didn't really want to cut up men; she just dredged her haunted subconscious for stark images that would point out absurdities and inequalities in gender roles we accept without thinking. She wrote wild, violent satire, and her sense of humor has been overshadowed by the grim fact that she shot someone real.

Solanas' play follows a butch dyke named Bongi Perez around a cafe filled with street characters. A lowlife named Alvin Koontz makes a pass at her; a woman named Ginger shows up looking for a lost little turd she wants to cook for dinner. ("Everyone knows that men have so much respect for women who are good at lapping up shit," Ginger explains.) A long conversation about men vs. women among Bongi, Ginger, and Ginger's husband Russell forms the heart of the show. At last Bongi runs into a pregnant uptown New Yorker named "Mrs. Arthur Hazlitt" who gushes about her taste for sex and then, in a fit of anger, kills her whining son.

Notice that Up Your Ass doesn't have "plot" so much as attitude. Every single scene deals with the battle of the sexes. Some parts are funny, others are tedious. Luckily for Coates' production, Leanne Borghesi plays a hilarious Ginger, in power suit and heels: Her movement, singing, and line-delivery are all in perfect satirical tune. She's a caricature of a savvy '60s Cosmo girl who believes in handling her man by serving his every need. Her husband Russell is a smooth, mustachioed man-about-town who wears a suit and gives monologues over easy dinner jazz; Mantra Plonsey has him speak in a gangsterish voice. ("Russell's a gentleman," says Ginger. "Does that mean he fucks with his tie on?" asks Bongi.) And Sara Moore does a solid, irony-laden job as Bongi. (All the actors are women, by the way.)

But Coates mucks around with the setting. His version takes place not in a cafe but in a karaoke bar, which amounts to a lukewarm excuse for making the show a musical. For the last several years Coates has been creating high-tech spectaculars that explore the conflict between romantic Ludditism and bleeding-edge science. His sets in 20/20 Blake were so experimental you needed 3-D glasses to see them. But Up Your Ass doesn't have a single line about technology, so it looks as if Coates, to save his name as an avant-gardist, felt pressure to come up with some other wild innovation, and the result is two dozen prose speeches sung to pop songs ranging from "Surfing Bird" to "Me and Bobby McGee."

Why, why, why? The concept comes hurtling out of left field and knocks the play in the ribs. The conceit does nothing interesting to the characters, story, or set. And if the program didn't say that Solanas' cafe was "realized in this production as a karaoke club," I would have written here that these people in a sidewalk cafe keep breaking into song for no reason. Some of the songs are also exceedingly lame. At one point, Sharon Boggs does a screeching imitation of Janis Joplin that sounds like feral cats attacking a blackboard.

Since the songs are in prose, and Coates didn't change a word of the script, the worst ramble on like bad opera. Coates did take the liberty of repeating lines, though, and the best songs repeat them cleverly. "Grabbin' My Ass," by Ginger, sung to "Try a Little Tenderness," and something set to "White Rabbit" are powerful diversions from the constant arguing, and actually improve the play. But it might have been better for Coates to admit he was spicing up a few dead patches in the script by setting them to music, rather than invent some nonsense excuse.

Karen Ripley does good work as Alvin Koontz, the lowlife, and especially as the German-inflected Homemaking Teacher. "Vee are dedicated to the belief that marriage ought to be fun, fun, fun," she says, standing at the podium in a houndstooth suit and cat's-eye glasses, with toilet paper stuck to her heel. To a hushed audience she gives a lecture on homemaking that's remarkable as the only instance of deadpan humor in the play. It ends with a lesson in rectal maintenance with a bottle brush.

The best parts of Up Your Ass have a Rocky Horror sense of subversive fun; the worst are actively annoying. The Medea-like final scene, with Mrs. Arthur Hazlitt strangling her son when he won't shut up about getting glue on his "dingy," was rumored to be the most disturbing manifestation of Valerie Solanas' misanthropy, but I didn't squirm. Rebecca Pezzullo was so irritating as the noisy little brat it was a relief to see him die.

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