Monday, February 14, 2005

Venus (Cleveland Public Theatre)

‘VENUS’ fails to compel at CPT

During the second act of Suzan-Lori Parks’ ‘VENUS’ at Cleveland Public Theatre, I glanced down the row in which I was sitting. The man next to me was snoring and three of the remaining seven people were sleeping, or at least had their eyes closed. This does not bode well for a production. To be honest, I couldn’t blame them.

Parks play is loosely based on the story of Saartjie Baartman, an African woman with an enormous posterior, who was taken to London in the early 19th century. Dubbed The Venus Hottentot, she left her home not as a slave, but with a desire to make a lot of money. Once in England she became the star of a freak show. A debate began as to whether the exhibition constituted slavery, and a court heard a case to determine whether the exhibitioner should be sentenced under the country’s antislavery laws.

Based on Baartman’s story, Parks wrote a play which examines such issues as the objectification of people and cultures; the fascination with what is heathen, foreign, different, sensational; and how some people are influenced more often by appearances than substance. There is also the underlying commentary on how each of us, in our own way, is a freak.

On the surface, these topics should make for great theatre. The same concept worked well in the ‘ELEPHANT MAN.’ Unfortunately, this play misses the mark. It is pondersome, overly-long and fails to compel. This is somewhat surprising as Parks is the author of some impressive theatrical pieces including the Obie Award winning ‘IMPERCEPTIBLE MUTABILITIES IN THE THIRD KINGDOM.’

Parks’ approach to dialogues assumes that the audience is willing to dig and ponder meanings. She is noted for her dense language and use of metaphors. She repeats ideas and speeches. This writing style leads to a deliberately static plot evolvement, as is evidenced in ‘VENUS.’ There is little real interaction between the characters. Even the scene in which Saartjie and the Baron Docteur, who has purchased her as a “trophy” mistress, negotiate their relationship in bed, there is a lack of true connection between the characters.

Sometimes stagnant scripts can get a breath of life via a director. Unfortunately, Jyana S. Gregory doesn’t appear to be that kind of director. The production is static. Nothing sparks. There is little attempt made to compel the audience to watch, to listen, to understand.

The cast tries hard, but with little overall effect. Nina Domingue, a twice recognized “Times Tributes Theatre Award” winner in 2004, is unquestionably one of the area’s best actresses. Even she couldn’t save the production. She is given little to work with. Part of this is script, part is directorial decisions. She is thwarted by underplaying the character, not being allowed to use texturing of speech and action to make Saartjie live.

Robert J. Williams does a credible job as the Negro Resurrectionist, our guide to the goings-on. Again, he so underplays the role that his meanings are often lost. The chorus is often impossible to understand due to missed timing and not speaking in unison. David Loy, as the Baron Docteur, performs on the surface, not delving into the motivations of the character.

The highlight of the show is Sergio Villegas’s wonderful circus ring set. The program designs and poster art of Nikita Hunter are also wonderful.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As my sleeping row-mates seemed to reveal, CPT’s ‘VENUS’ fails to compel attention or hold much interest.