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Theatre in Review: Venus (Signature Theatre)

Zainab Jas and cast. Photo: Joan Marcus

The title character of Suzan-Lori Parks' play is Saartjie Baartman, a member of the Khoikhoi tribe, from what is now South Africa. In 1810, the twenty-year-old Baartman was taken to England, where she was put on display as The Venus Hottentot -- her decisively non-Caucasian contours, especially her large buttocks, making her an object of public fascination. Seen as both a freak and a disturbing icon of primitive eroticism, Baartman was poked and prodded by paying customers -- in addition to being scrutinized by scientists whose obsession with her physiognomy was scarcely more elevated. Dragged around England and Ireland for several years, she eventually ended up in France, where, if anything, her living conditions declined; she died at twenty-five. It's a ghastly story of racism, sexism, and colonialism, and it seems like impossibly rich dramatic material; with her grasp of history and changing racial and sexual politics, Suzan-Lori Parks would seem to be the woman for the job.

But, as seen at the Signature twenty-one years after its Public Theater debut (where it seemed like a Richard Foreman production with an incidental text by Parks), Venus comes across as both overelaborate and undercooked, a series of mirthless cartoons that state and restate its theme to diminishing effect. One rarely sees a production so loaded with extra-theatrical devices: The first act unfolds on Matt Saunders' circus tent set, which discloses a troupe of freaks arrayed in gaudy, inventive costumes by Emilio Sosa. A narrator, known as the Negro Resurrectionist, is on hand to announce the number of each scene and provide additional context; he occasionally picks up an acoustic guitar and wanders through the house, serenading us. The main action is interrupted by a series of scenes -- performed in a self-conscious, stilted manner -- from a potboiler romantic drama in which a young aristocrat falls in love with a stage version of Baartman. In a deliberate attempt at blurring past and present, Brandon Wolcott's incidental music works a stylistic vein ranging from bebop to cool jazz. Parks has always treated historical subjects using contemporary language, an approach that sometimes creates a sense of immediacy, but here breeds howlers like "don't be a gumball" or clichés, such as one character's remark that Baartman's appearance "blew Dad's mind."

Even as Venus traces its lead character's trajectory from tawdry fame to abandonment and death -- and despite some very fine work in the title role by the sly, smoky-voiced Zainab Jah -- it never becomes the gripping, revelatory indictment it means to be. Ironically, Parks is no more interested in Baartman as an individual than were the audiences of Regency England, choosing instead to present her as a largely passive figure handed from owner to owner. There are intriguing hints of Venus' interior life: We briefly see her collaborating in her own exploitation, keenly tracking her box office receipts and, surrounded by leering patrons, informing us, "I tell them what they want to hear." Later, having been spirited off to Paris, she strikes a pathetic figure, kneeling on her bed and plaintively asking the Baron Docteur, her manager and captor, to love her. But none of these moments come together to create a coherent portrait; even in the hands of a sympathetic playwright, poor Baartman is condemned to remain somebody else's symbol.

The first act, which unfolds rather like a sinister carnival, has most of the best moments. At the top of the play, Jah enters and dons the bodysuit that gives her Venus' outsized dimensions, including what one character describes as "bottoms like hot air balloons." The sight of Venus surrounded by gaping customers is authentically disturbing -- one overwrought male appears to reach climax simply by touching her buttocks -- although it is repeated to diminishing effect. (The freak-show scenes recall The Elephant Man, a play to which Venus is eternally indebted.) Several passages -- for example, the chorus of bewigged judges ruling in an indecency case against Venus -- aren't as scathingly amusing as intended, but the surreal action carries one along. The second act, devoted largely to Venus and the Baron Docteur -- who is devoted to sleeping with her even as he makes plans for her eventual dissection -- is notably limp, with John Ellison Conlee delivering a surprisingly listless performance as the Baron. (If you attend, be aware that an additional scene unfolds during the intermission, featuring the Baron and a female attendant discussing Venus' autopsy. I never understand why playwrights do things like this.)

Indeed, Lear deBessonet's production often feels lacking in energy, despite its highly qualified cast. Randy Danson makes the biggest impression as The Mother-Showman, whose relationship with Venus, her star attraction, is equal parts affection and exploitation. Kevin Mambo is an impressively baleful presence as The Negro Resurrectionist, keeping tabs on Venus' many misadventures. Also running around -- and given surprisingly little of consequence to do -- are such familiar faces as Birgit Huppuch, Hannah Cabell, and Tony Torn -- although the last has two memorable appearances, once as a French lady of quality with a model of a clipper ship embedded in her hair, and, as another female, sporting a wig that makes him look alarmingly like Sweeney Todd's Mrs. Lovett.

The production design is accomplished on all fronts. The skeletal metal frame of Saunders' set transforms neatly into Venus' Parisian digs, both locations featuring an elaborate two-tier chandelier filled with transparent lightbulbs. He also provides a little, but highly effective, coup de théâtre in Act II, in which Venus is lain on a table and the curtains on the set's upper tier are raised, revealing several rows of heads placed on sticks; suddenly, the stage has been converted into an operating theatre. Sosa's costumes, which range across several periods and styles, are helped by J. Jared Janas' creative hair and makeup designs. Justin Townsend's lighting blends a variety of approaches, including footlight looks, warm washes, and mirror ball effects.

Even in its best moments, however, Venus is an enervated and repetitive account of a shameful historical episode; for all the effort expended, most of its insights are disclosed in the first thirty minutes or so; after that, you may feel that, like Baartman, you are being taken on a road tour with all-too-predictable conclusion. -- David Barbour

(30 May 2017)

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