Semiotics of the Kitchen

Gob Squad, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2012. Performance view, The Public Theater. Photo: David Baltzer.

OF KITCHEN, the 1965 film directed by Andy Warhol from a script by Ronald Tavel that was largely ignored by its star, Edie Sedgwick, Norman Mailer rhapsodized: “It captured the essence of every boring dead day one’s ever had in a city, a time when everything is imbued with the odor of damp washcloths and old drains. I suspect that a hundred years from now people will look at Kitchen and say, ‘Yes, that is the way it was in the late Fifties, early Sixties in America. That’s why they had the war in Vietnam. That’s why the rivers were getting polluted. That’s why there was typological glut. That’s why the horror came down. That’s why the plague was on its way.’ Kitchen shows that better than any other work of that time.”

This bit of hyperbolic hindsight or “typological glut,” published in Edie, An American Biography (1982) by Jean Stein, edited with George Plimpton, also may be found in the description of Kitchen on the Warhol Stars website (, an Internet treasure, as is the website of the late Ronald Tavel (, which contains the script of Kitchen as well as all of Tavel’s other scripts, journals, essays, manifestos, and scabrous gossip. The Mailer quote and the description of Kitchen (appropriated from Stephen Koch’s Stargazer: The Life, World and Films of Andy Warhol [1973]) were e-mailed to me by Tavel friend and associate Norman Glick as a way of encouraging me to hotfoot it to the Public Theater to see Gob Squad’s production of Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good). Glick liked the production a lot, especially the parts that used Tavel’s actual lines or paraphrased them, as in, “This cake is just like my life. One meaningless layer after another.” He was upset, however, that the piece did not give Tavel proper credit, despite the note in the program, printed in large black type, which explains that “the original screenplay for Andy Warhol’s Kitchen was written by Ronald Tavel.” Acknowledging collaborators was not in Warhol’s playbook, and history has done nothing to challenge his auteurist assumption. Gob Squad is riffing on a Warhol film (actually more than one), and the fact that Tavel’s layer-cake metaphor most likely inspired the pile-up of past/present/future that is the joy of the production won’t change an audience’s perception that it’s Warhol’s kitchen alone that Gob Squad has taken over.

On entering the Public’s Newman Theater, audience members are encouraged to tour the area behind the triptych of large video screens on which the entire performance will be projected. At once backstage, stage, and soundstage, the space through which we amble is divided into three sections. The titular kitchen (a narrow table, a few chairs, a cupboard) is at the center flanked by a bedroom (just a bed really) and a more amorphous area where a chair is positioned for “screen tests.” Small video cameras on tripods are trained on each area. Lounging around the set are the cast and crew, several sporting the unisex horizontal striped pullover favored by Warhol superstars. At what might be considered the climax of the performance, four actors clad in these signature shirts will engage in a high-speed mock orgy on and around the kitchen table.

During the tour, the actors are quite chatty. I tell them that I saw the premiere of Warhol’s Kitchen in 1966 at the theater directly across Lafayette Street from the Public, where the Blue Man Group has been in residence for more than two decades. It was then the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque. They tell us that the tour is important because it proves to the audience that the black-and-white video projections which constitute almost the entire performance (and which resemble the texture and tonalities of Warhol’s black-and-white 16-mm films) are a simulcast of the performance taking place in the colorful, three-dimensional space behind the screens—and not a prerecorded video. The strategy works. Paradoxically, the video, which is larger than life but also ghostly, is more convincing than seeing flesh-and-blood performers moving around a three-dimensional space imitating Warhol superstars could possibly be.

Which is not to say that the Gob Squad actors are not extremely skilled and lively. At the performance I saw, the leading roles were played by Sharon Smith, Nina Tecklenburg, Sean Patten, and Simon Will. Whereas Warhol’s performers mixed up being themselves with playing themselves or playing nominal characters, the Gob Squad adds another “layer,” as Tavel would have it. “I’m Nina and I’ll be playing the character of ‘Nina’ in Kitchen,” Tecklenburg says, addressing the camera/audience directly. But it’s clear that she is also attempting to re-create the character played by Elektra in the film Kitchen, and she acknowledges the absurdity of such a re-creation. Time contracts and expands.

Gob Squad briefly ventures into Warholian boredom, although it never falls apart as thoroughly as the end of the original Kitchen does when Edie burns her hand on the stove and other performers wander about aimlessly for at least ten minutes. When nothing much is cooking in Gob Squad’s kitchen, one’s attention turns to the right or left screens, where passages of Sleep, Kiss, and a Screen Test or two are reenacted. At one point, the all-purpose kitchen table is used for a female version of Blow Job (the action, as in the Warhol version, kept discreetly below the frame line). About halfway through the performance, audience members are drafted to replace the lead performers. (The initial behind-the-screens tour may be a way for the Gob Squad to size up which of us is ready for fifteen minutes of fame.) The draftees add a layer of the unpredictable to what is clearly a precisely tuned—and therefore anti-Warhol—theatrical machine. Still, they are not free to do whatever they please. Instead they are given headphones through which they are fed stage directions and dialogue, which they then repeat.

As I remember, Warhol did not cue his performers through headsets. In Kitchen, pages of Tavel’s script were pasted on every available surface, but failing to avail herself of any of them, Sedgwick sneezed her way through the entire film. It was Jean-Luc Godard who outfitted his actors with invisible earbuds so that he could control how they moved and what they said while the camera was running. Warhol was as much indebted to Godard as Godard was to American Pop art. The striped pullover/boy-cut hair combination that we see in countless photos of Andy and Edie was first worn by Jean Seberg in Breathless (1960). Gob Squad nails the Warhol/Godard connection by including a bit of the Breathless theme music in the wittily collaged score that sets much of the tone of the production. Opening with the “Bell Song” from Lakmé (a Factory favorite), it sends us out humming the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” suggesting that Gob Squad’s Kitchen aims to be as endearing as Warhol’s was antagonistic.

Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) plays through Sunday, February 5, at the Public Theater in New York.