TBA12: Gob Squad’s ‘Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good)’

Loving Warhol means having a bit fun

A bunch of hipsters making and consuming obscure, highly conceptual art that lacks real heart or serious development of the concept, and the wannabes that worship at their altar. A description of certain 21st century fringe festivals? How about The Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio and boho haven in mid-1960s midtown Manhattan, a time and place still regarded fondly by today’s avant-art types, as evidenced by the popularity of one of last year’s best Time Based Arts Festival entries, Dean & Britta’s “13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.”

What if, goes the set up for the English theater troupe Gob Squad’s “Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good),” the most enjoyable entry in this year’s TBA festival so far, we could go back in time to those proto-cool days? And in most seemingly enthusiastic Rob Reiner/”Spinal Tap” fashion, the show opens with the too-close image of Squad’s breathlessly Warhol-worshipping Sean Patten projected on a tri-partite screen at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall, appearing in a black and white set showing a kitchen circa 1965 — but, alas, with a few anachronistic touches, like Safeway corn flakes and organic milk. (The other two insets simultaneously show Gob Squad’s recreations one of those notorious screen tests and Warhol’s early-‘60s film “Sleep.”)

As it turns out, that’s not the only element of this nostalgia trip sendup that fail to live up to its alleged expectations. Try as they might, Patten and his cohorts (made up and costumed like their famous predecessors such as John Cale and Edie Sedgwick, the star of Warhol’s original Kitchen) just don’t seem to be able to evince Warhol’s icy coolness, or demonstrate the patience to sit staring at a camera for minutes at a time (as in Warhol’s notorious Screen Tests), or do nothing but eat a mushroom (or in this case, mustard) for 45 minutes (1964’s “Eat”), or make the most of the titular activities of “Kiss” and “Blow Job.” Thanks to today’s rules, they’re not even allowed to smoke on the “Kitchen” set. “Why,” asks Sharon Smith, “would would someone make a film about someone asleep, and then people would come to watch it?” Why indeed.

The stage seems to be set for a Spinal Tap-style parody, and there’s plenty of that in this ingenious production, but it soon becomes much more, involving the contrast between what happens on set (which lies just behind the screen, making it easy for actors to move back and forth between here and now and 1965 NYC, a la Woody Allen’s classic film “The Purple Rose of Cairo”) and on stage. The show also contains switcheroonies between the cast and selected audience members (who receive instructions via headphones) that amount to the best use of (entirely voluntary) audience participation I’ve ever encountered, and much more.

But for all its inventive methods (which I don’t want to disclose and spoil here, because quite a bit profits from surprise) the humor (some of it improvised) of Gob Squad really emerges from a very old fashioned place: character. Each actor creates flawed, very human characters who fail to live up to either their idols or their own hopes, and the distance between those intentions and what they actually achieve makes for consistently funny and often hilarious (though seldom in a slapstick, gag-oriented way) two-hour show that, though it could be a bit tighter, ranks among the most creative and enjoyable I’ve ever seen at TBA.

Volunteer Ellen Goldschmidt joins Gob Squad/ Jonah Levine courtesy of PICA

And being presented in the context of a fringe arts festival gives an extra giggle to a production that pokes gentle fun not just at pretentious art but also our own affectations and fallibilities. You can sense the English-German troupe’s genuine admiration and even affection for Warhol and his scene — and at the same time their understanding that we 21st century types could never really recreate the naive conditions that made them seem so cool then. Warhol himself would probably have smirked a bit at the humor that emerges through their on-screen tiffs, skits, dances, and other hapless attempts to ascend to the heights of ‘60s cool.

But in its closing sequences, Gob Squad goes even farther, deftly using music and dialogue to create a briefly poignant mood that reminds us that for all our shortcomings, there’s still plenty of value in being what we are, even if we can never really be as cool as Andy might once have seemed. I emerged from this smartly performed and thoughtfully constructed theater piece with a grin that wouldn’t subside, not just because of Kitchen’s gentle satirical jabs at our pretensions and foibles, but also thanks to its appreciation of them.

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