By Stanford Friedman
Valerie Jean Solanas was many things, but she was never anyone’s puppet, until now. In Chambre Noire, an hour-long, surreal fever dream, Solanas’s life and death are played out using life-size puppets, 3d lighting effects and a xylophone. The piece, an entry in this year’s Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, deconstructs its subject’s many sides. A radical feminist who authored the renown 1967 SCUM Manifesto which called for the extermination of all men, she was also a playwright and a prostitute, a psychology student and a paranoid schizophrenic. Most famously, she was the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Less famously, she died in a San Francisco welfare hotel at age 52. Norwegian-born puppeteer Yngvild Aspeli took inspiration for this piece from a Swedish novel about Solanas, which is to say that this uniquely American tragedy – driven crazy in New York, dying alone in California – gets the Nordic noir treatment here: darkness and childhood trauma, moody songs from a chanteuse, disembodied puppet legs with nowhere to run. What’s missing though is good old U.S. anger. It’s an outrageous work that goes light on the outrage.
The non-linear storyline revolves mostly around Solanas lying in her deathbed in 1988. Aspeli, a fine actor as well as a great puppet master, employs a “double presence” technique. Besides manipulating the large, decrepit foam body of Solanas, she also dons a wig and portrays a second character, usually Solanas’s screwed up mother, Dorothy. The two entities can then carry out entire conversations with Aspeli finding clever ways to hide her mouth when it’s the puppet’s turn to gab. In a lovely scene toward the end of the evening, the two characters have a moment of self-awareness, causing Solanas to wonder who this manipulator is, “a nurse or angel or echo of my mother.”
In flashbacks, we are treated to a realistic, kid-size puppet of the future felon that attaches to Aspeli in her Dorothy wig as believably as any young girl would hold tight to her mother. Additionally, we witness an eight-legged version of Dorothy, a pale faced, young-adult Valerie that imperceptibly utilizes Aspeli’s arms, and a nude, red-haired hooker with detachable parts whose flexibility is obscene in every sense of the word. Stunning video effects, some suggestive of female genitalia and others just straight out penises, float by on scrims placed behind, in front of and in the middle of the action. As for Warhol, he briefly appears, with a full mini-body, wrapped around Solanas’s neck, but otherwise shows up as a video projection with many copies of his bobbing noggin floating in space, the ultimate in nuclear War-heads.
Joining Aspeli on stage is the musician Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen who offers a steady stream of atmospheric weirdness, singing or plucking, and sometimes bowing, the xylophone. At one point, she even plays her own body, tapping her chest, then giving hard slaps to her face for the sake of the resulting percussive tones. It is oddly the most violent and effective moment of the night; self-harm in the interest of art is a motive that defines Solanas to a tee.
Chambre Noire – Directed by Yngvild Aspeli and Paola Rizza.
WITH: Puppeteer Yngvild Aspeli and Percussionist Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen.
Lighting designer, Xavier Lescat; Video designer, David Lejard-Ruffet; Sound design and video manager, Antony Aubert. Plexus Polaire at The Public Theater’s 2019 Under the Radar Festival, 425 Lafayette St., https://publictheater.org. Through January 13. Running Time: 65 minutes.