We generally remember Andy Warhol's art as brightly-colored paintings of soup cans or his nearly five-minute performance of eating a hamburger in "Andy Warhol Eating a Hamburger." But at his best—especially with his video art that starred other people—Warhol found extraordinary human specimens and directed them in a way that makes them feel alive and relevant on film decades after his death. 

While working on her latest play, Blonde on a Bum Trip, Portland playwright Mikki Gillette combed archives and documentaries about three of Warhol’s superstar actresses: Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and Jackie Curtis. All three would today be understood as trans women. All three famously refused to be limited by the era’s understanding of gender and lived freely as themselves to the end—Darling died in 1974, Curtis in 1985, and Woodlawn in 2015. They not only stood out as exceptional beauties, but each reigns over a specific verse in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” 

In keeping with its subjects, Blonde stars as the main production of Fuse Theatre Ensemble‘s 14th annual OUTwright Festival, playing for multiple weekends in the Black Box space of Reed College's Performing Arts Building. It's a robust work of pop art history, authentically delusional comedy, and tender realism.

However, even as Gillette tries to provide a view of this trio of icons outside of the art they influenced—imagining how Darling, Woodlawn, and Curtis might have lived in the late '60s and '70s—the girls never fully escape Warhol’s shadow.

Ruby Welch as Candy Darling and Riley McCarthy as Jackie Curtis. Greg Parkinson

Gillette's script focuses on Darling (Ruby Welch) a bit more closely than Woodlawn (Juliet Milan) and Curtis (Riley McCarthy—yes, a former Mercury Genius of Comedy), but the main arc of the story follows the girls from their shared aspirations of gaining Warhol's notice to their early movies to their first brushes with fame. All along the way, the superstars-to-be confront transphobia from peers, members of the public, and the media.

Directed by Rusty Tennant, the trio of actresses do their subjects justice. Though Welch declined to adopt Darling’s Mid-Atlantic accent, the passion she showed onstage revealed Darling's lesser known side—as a kid making art for the thrill of it.

The work offers a fresh perspective on the girls’ history. The way the actresses bicker and gossip—all while forging deep bonds with one another—reminded me of how my own queer friends came together and grew apart throughout our twenties. But during a scene when the actresses air dirty laundry about coming to New York, it felt like their dialogue was more focused on dispensing pop art history than being a conversation.

Blonde expects its audience to have a working knowledge of its era and subjects, and it also relies heavily on the cast's two-person supporting ensemble (Heath Hyun and Cosmo Reynolds) to fill out the surrounding Warholverse. Though a QR code in the program provided a character index, I heard audible expressions of confusion from audience members after my particular showing.

Some technical aspects distracted, such as ambient background noise at times overpowering the actresses’ dialogue. The most puzzling production choice occurred during a series of quick costume changes, performed by Reynolds behind a silver curtain of thick cut tinsel that repeatedly twisted open to show them mid-dress. At first, it seemed as if a draft had somehow blown the curtain open, but when it happened several more times, I  wondered if it was meant to make the audience ponder Reynolds' gender malleability, as they moved between characters.

The play Gillette has written made these historic figures come alive again, but don't go in expecting the girls to undergo a Pretty Woman wardrobe transformation to symbolize triumph. Despite the success that their talents funneled back to Warhol, they still lived in poverty and the play reflects that hard truth.

While I find Blonde on a Bum Trip ultimately a worthy show for audiences—reminding us how trans people lived in times before more widespread visibility—the production could use some tighter editing. But so could Warhol, if we’re being honest.

Blonde on a Bum Trip shows at Reed College Performing Arts, 3203 SE Woodstock, Thurs-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 3 pm, through June 9, suggested donation $25, tickets here, all ages