`Venus' a bold beauty, based on a true story

Theater: The play boldly takes on the racist and sexist treatment of Venus Hottentot of the 19th century.

Theater

January 15, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Suzan-Lori Parks writes challenging plays filled with poetry, politics and history. Until now, Baltimore hasn't had a chance to see her work. But AXIS Theatre has corrected that oversight with an intriguing production of Parks' boldly theatrical "Venus."

The 1996 play is loosely based on the true story of Saartjie Baartman, an African woman with enormous buttocks who was exhibited Elephant Man-style in England in the early 19th century as the Venus Hottentot.

Parks tells Venus' story in flashback, beginning with the announcement of her death and interspersing the narrative with historical and medical passages read by a character called the Negro Resurrectionist (a reference to his former occupation of digging up corpses for medical studies).

A four-person chorus assumes several roles, ranging from Venus' fellow sideshow freaks to the anatomy students who poke and prod her after she's brought to France by an aristocratic doctor.

The chorus also enacts a play-within-a-play, "For the Love of the Venus," which flips the aesthetic in Venus' favor, focusing on a young man who rejects his fiancee in favor of a Hottentot.

As this suggests, Parks' account is anything but a standard history play. Instead, it uses a far more confrontational approach - including dialect, irreverent humor and lots of brushes with deliberate bad taste - to both implicate theatergoers and win their sympathy for Venus' plight.

Thematically and structurally, this is difficult material to stage, particularly since Parks often has a number of things going on at once. In addition to the appearances by the Resurrectionist, for example, scenes from the play-within-a-play weave throughout the proceedings.

It's almost as if she has borrowed the format of a sideshow or carnival, in which patrons go from one human "oddity" to the next; in the case of Parks' play, however, we see things simultaneously. (And, as is true of freak shows, this one raises the question: Who are the freaks, those on display or those who pay to gawk at them?)

This is difficult material to stage, but director Brian Klaas has largely mastered it, using projected scene titles, musical leitmotifs and Joel Shepherd's sparse but adaptable set design to help make a complex script easier to follow. He has also found an appealing empathetic Venus in newcomer Joi C. Edwards, who portrays her victimized character as a gullible but sweet-natured young woman yearning for love and at least partly complicit in her own fate.

Most other cast members - especially the versatile chorus - handle their roles with assurance (the exception is Stephen Green, whose Resurrectionist will probably gain more polish as the run continues). Melissa-Leigh Douglass is appropriately venal in the flamboyant role of the Mother Showman, the sideshow impresario. And though Klaas' use of gender-blind casting muddies the play's sexual politics, Katherine Lyons is especially creepy in the male role the Baron Docteur, who claims to love Venus but is more interested in advancing his career by using her for scientific research.

No one - Venus included - comes off unscathed in Parks' retelling of this blatantly racist and sexist historic episode. And the story isn't over yet. South Africa is still trying to reclaim Baartman's preserved skeleton and genitals, which are housed in Paris' Musee de l'Homme.

It's also a story in which justice, dignity and basic humanity are sacrificed to greed and lust. The details may be unfamiliar, but the themes are not. Parks has found a jarringly immediate way to express them, and AXIS deserves credit for introducing local audiences to this important, iconoclastic voice in American theater.

Show times at AXIS, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 11. Tickets are $12 and $14. Call 410-243-5237.

Kingly update

Here's yet another update on "King Hedley II," which will play a monthlong pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center beginning Feb. 25. Last week we reported that Charles S. Dutton was negotiating for the title role in this latest drama by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson. Since then, schedule conflicts have taken Dutton out of the picture. Instead, the role has gone to Brian Stokes Mitchell, who won a Tony Award last year for his starring role in the revival of "Kiss Me, Kate."

The 1980s installment in Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th century African-American life, "Hedley" is directed by Marion McClinton, an associate artist at Center Stage.

Humana Festival

The Actors Theatre of Louisville's prestigious Humana Festival of New American Plays has announced its 25th anniversary lineup, including six full-length plays, three 10-minute plays and a dramatic anthology by 16 playwrights, most of them festival veterans.

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