A true story: On May 15, 1975, President Gerald Ford held a state dinner in honor of the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his wife, the Empress Farah Pahlavi. Andy Warhol was invited and attended.
The empress met Warhol and said she was interested in having Warhol paint her portrait.
A few months later, after finalizing terms, Warhol accepted her commission and went to Tehran. He waited in his room at the Tehran Hilton until he was summoned to the palace, took Polaroid pictures of the empress and returned to the United States.
The imagined experience of what happened while Warhol was waiting in his hotel room is the premise of Northlight Theatre’s fine production of Andy Warhol in Iran.
Written by Brent Askari and directed by Artistic Director BJ Jones, it’s a two-character play starring Rob Lindley as Warhol and Hamid Dehghani as Farad. The play is 70 minutes without an intermission.
The actors are terrific. This intense production will leave audiences thinking about actual events from 45 years ago, as well as current events involving police conduct, protests and what constitutes art.
Lindley’s Warhol opens the show from amid the audience. He breaks the so-called fourth wall and talks directly to the crowd. Both characters address the audience at various points during the play. Warhol talks about his life and the Factory scene he created in New York City, whereas Farad educates the audience about Iranian history and the reprehensible actions of the shah.
Warhol’s persona, his support of Andy Warhol Enterprises, is all about satisfying his artistic and financial goals, which are often one and the same. He dodges uncomfortable questions, pretending not to understand the concept being discussed.
Lindley wears Warhol’s distinctive white silver wigs and clear eyeglass frames and mimics his vocal cadence and tone to breathe life into an icon of 20th century art and commercialism. He conveys Warhol’s obliviousness and greed as if they are natural traits rather than learned behaviors. To Warhol, this entire trip is about “bringing home the bacon.” He doesn’t care or hasn’t considered the ethical paradox of painting leaders connected to immoral regimes.
“I have many mouths to feed,” he says.
Dehghani fully embraces Farad’s raw emotion, dignity, idealism, anger, frustration and pain. His character is all tightly coiled pacing, constantly checking the windows facing the street to see if his compatriots have arrived to help him complete a planned kidnapping, and assuring Warhol that he would not be harmed as long as he follows Farad’s directions.
Both characters become more sympathetic as they become more candid with themselves and with each other. Askari’s dialogue pushes the audience to consider unfamiliar points of view. While there are plenty of comical lines, it’s not lighthearted material. Still, this new show is a fine production and well worth seeing.
Amid the verbal sparring, Farad tries to resist conversing with Warhol, but is unable to suppress his humanity. Underneath his bluster is an artist, a poet and a sensitive man deeply mourning his father who was cruelly tortured and killed by the government.
The two men realize they are similar in unexpected ways. They both are dealing with life-altering, lingering traumas: Warhol, the result of being shot at point-blank range by a mentally ill sycophant; and Farad, from being beaten by members of the Iranian secret police.
To Warhol’s incredulity, Farad does not care about going to America, becoming famous or becoming rich, all enticements Warhol offers him. He wants to stay in Iran to fix his country. He is desperate for his cause to be seen without him personally being seen, for that would lead to his death.
Until this conversation, Farad and his countrymen have been invisible to Warhol. The irony is Warhol has made his fame and fortune by really looking at the world around him. He sees, stares and looks intently, often seeing what others overlook. Does he finally see Farad?
The set is pure 1970s upscale hotel decor and serves as an able backdrop and platform for these two talented actors.
The Northlight Theatre production of Andy Warhol in Iran is on stage at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie, through Feb. 19. Tickets ($35-$79) are available online and at the box office.