BWW Review: WARHOLCAPOTE: Soup or Art?
A Non-Fiction Invention
From the words of Truman Capote and Andy Warhol, Adapted by Rob Roth, Directed by Michael Mayer; Scenic Design, Stanley A. Meyer; Costume Design, Clint Ramos; Lighting Design, Kevin Adams; Sound Design, John Gromada; Projections Design, Darrel Maloney; Hair & Wig Design, Charles G. LaPointe; Make-Up Design, Cookie Jordan; Dialect Coach, Erika Bailey; Associate Director, Johanna McKeon; Production Stage Manager, Rick Steiger
Performances through October 13 at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office: 617-547-8300 or www.americanrepertorytheater.org
The first thing I associate with the name Andy Warhol is Campbell's soup. In the 1960s, the pop artist painted many iconic American symbols, but the soup can stands out in my memory. By contrast to that lighthearted claim to fame, my strongest association to the name of Truman Capote is his 1966 non-fiction novel, "In Cold Blood," the chilling account of the murder of a family in rural Kansas. On the basis of those divergent works of art, Warhol and Capote might appear to have little to connect them. However, in WARHOLCAPOTE, A Non-Fiction Invention, adaptor Rob Roth uses their own words to enlighten us and outline their commonalities.
The world premiere production at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge exposes us to never-before-heard conversations between these two icons, brought vividly to life by Stephen Spinella (Warhol) in his A.R.T. debut, and Dan Butler (Capote) who appeared as George Wallace in All the Way (2013). In the late 1970s, Warhol and Capote landed on the idea to create a Broadway play together. In service of that goal, they met repeatedly over the course of months and tape-recorded their wide-ranging conversations. Although the play never came to be, when Roth got wind of the existence of the tapes, he made it his mission to get authorization from the Warhol Foundation to get access and have them transcribed. From 8,000 pages of transcripts and about seventy hours of recordings, Roth crafted WARHOLCAPOTE, capturing the essence of the two men and their singular relationship.
Director Michael Mayer finds ways to infuse movement and small actions into a play that basically consists of two men talking and drinking. The scenic design (Stanley A. Meyer) is composed of a pair of butterfly-style swivel chairs surrounded by giant swirls of cassette tape, augmented by colorful, pop art projections (Darrel Maloney) on the upstage wall. Kevin Adams' lighting design alters the colors from one scene to the next, differentiating between Studio 54, a restaurant, Andy's studio, and Truman's home. Sound designer John Gromada propels us into the scene at the dance club, and makes sure that the conversations are clearly presented. Both characters are authentically realized by Clint Ramos' costume design and the hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe.
With the foundation in place for their make-believe, the actors have to do the challenging work of convincing us that we are seeing more than Spinella and Butler in make-up and evocative wigs and clothing styles. Under his albino mop of hair and spectacles, Spinella is at once mellow and gushing, a man far more in awe of his compatriot than aware of his own talents. He maintains a soft-spoken and sing-songy voice tic, and his movements are stiff and efficient. His strong connection to his tape recorder (which he refers to as his "wife") strengthens the impression that he is an avid observer of life, more than a participant.
Perhaps more impressive because he was a late replacement (for Leslie Jordan) in the role, Butler is astonishing in the multiple ways he captures the persona of Capote. Initially, he gets a boost from the visual image seared into our collective memories, of Capote in dark glasses, wearing a fedora and a topcoat draped over his shoulders. Clothes may make the man, but Butler's gait, gestures, and semi-lisp cement the impression. Most compelling is his ability to convey emotions through his speeches, sometimes self-aggrandizing, but often melancholy or insecure. Capote attained great celebrity, but his life was filled with many hardships and personal demons, as well.
Roth's achievement in WARHOLCAPOTE is the culmination of a ten-year journey, from the time he learned of the existence of the tapes, through the years of breaking through legal barriers and the painstaking transcription, settling upon a thematic approach, and finally arriving at the A.R.T. As much as the play shines an incisive light on these two important American artists, a major takeaway is the importance of good conversation and communication, the value of sitting down and listening to another person to really get to know them. It is a pleasure to revisit a time when it was recognized that words matter, and to hear them spoken by one of the great practitioners to an adoring audience of one of the great listeners.