Plays are often about more than one thing, often beyond their mere plots or even what the dialogue signifies. Good plays are usually about many things, sometimes even subjects unintended by the authors. Great plays are always about lots of things, covering themes outside the time, place, and milieu of their plots and settings, and continuing to reveal new ideas and meanings at every reading or performance. Suzan-Lori Parks’s plays fall into this last grouping, and Venus, her 1996 play based on a real person’s life more than 200 years ago, is different, and potentially richer not just with every production, but with each performance during a production’s run. In the introduction to an interview of Parks in the program for the 1996 première at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, the editor writes that “her plays resonate far beyond their singular subjects.” In “A Playwright of Importance,” an article about Parks’s writing (posted on ROT on 31 January 2011), Kirk Woodward declares “that all worthwhile plays, even apparently abstract ones like some of Beckett’s, take us through the specific to the general.” In an interview published in Signature Stories, the theater company’s audience magazine, Lear deBessonet, director of a new production of Venus, confessed, “I read her work in college and was completely rearranged by it” and labeled the play “complex” because of the way the playwright approached the subject.
Parks, the current Residency One playwright at the Signature Theatre Company, is having her second production of four within the year-long residency with Venus, following The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World last fall (see my report posted on 1 December 2016). (The remaining two Residency One plays, Fucking A and In the Blood, will be presented in August-September under the umbrella title The Red Letter Plays as the inaugural productions of STC’s 2017-18 season.) The revival of Venus, the first in New York City since the première, began previews in the Irene Diamond Stage of the Pershing Square Signature Center on 25 April and opened on 15 May; the production was scheduled to close on 4 June. Diana, my STC subscription partner, and I saw the 7:30 p.m. performance on Friday, 26 May, our final play in the troupe’s 2016-17 season on Theatre Row.
I saw Venus in its New York début at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival (now called just the Public Theater) in May 1996. The co-production, under the direction of Richard Foreman (who also designed the sets), with the Yale Repertory Theatre, premièred in New Haven, Connecticut, from 14 to 30 March 1996, then transferred to the Public’s Martinson Hall from 16 April through 19 June. The production, originally commissioned by New York City’s Women’s Project in 1995, won Parks the 1996 OBIE Award for Playwriting. In 1998, Parks herself directed a staged reading of Venus at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, and the Yale School of Drama mounted a production from 27 February to 3 March 2007 with a director and cast from the MFA program.
That 1996 première of Venus was the first play of Parks’s that I’d seen. (Before Signature’s Last Black Man, I saw Parks’s Broadway début, 2001’s Topdog/Underdog, for which she won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize, Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Playwriting Award, and Theatre World Award, in March 2002.) Needless to say, Foreman’s staging of Parks’s writing made the play twice as experimental and the more fascinating to me. I have no record of the 1996 production but I recall being very excited while I was there and when I left; images of the performance have stuck with me for 21 years.
(I wondered how Parks felt about the Foreman staging. He surely took over her play to some extent and put his stamp on it—it was full of his signature techniques of the time, most noticeably the strings with which he crisscrossed the set; a pulsating red light that hung above the stage; and posters, signs, and pieces of scenery inscribed with the names of the play’s characters. Did she feel the director had hijacked her creation? In an interview published in the Public’s program, the playwright said that the question reminded her of a physics question:
what happens when the immovable object meets an irresistible force? The answer is everything. That’s my answer, just the beauty of the word—everything happens. There is no limit. Richard is fearless, both with his own plays and also in the production of plays he hasn’t written. Fearless, with a will of iron, but also incredibly kind. And he has a really good understanding of the play. So there’s no limit to what can happen.
(But that may have been a dutiful expression from a playwright, still relatively unknown beyond professional theater scene, in the proprietary publication of her play’s producing theater, whose artistic director, George C. Wolfe, had mentored her earlier work and brought Foreman and her together for this project. In another statement, Parks wrote: “Foreman’s near-faultless eye for stage pictures . . . ultimately tries to do too much, ge[t]ting mired in its complicated journey.” Working with him, she said in a statement in TheatreForum, was “like being a dead playwright.”)
I wish I had made some kind of written account of the Public Theater production so I could make a real comparison between the two experiences, but I have only my 21-year-old recollection to go on. I can say with assuredness that the two versions were very different. Lear deBessonet’s staging at STC is far more clear-cut than Foreman’s—if that’s even a term you can use about a Parks play! (In 1999, Parks told an interviewer, “Venus was more straightforward than Richard [Foreman] made it.”)
Unlike some of Parks’s early plays, such as The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, written only seven years earlier, Venus has a story, the heavily fictionalized tale of the last six years of the life of Sarah (“Saartjie”) Baartman (ca. 1789-1815), a young Khoikhoi woman with an enormous posterior (a mark of her tribe). I won’t do a detailed précis of the play; Baartman’s biography is well-recorded in many places both on line and in print. The playwright says that the inception of Venus arose when she was writing another play in which Baartman was a minor character. At a cocktail party, she overheard director and Parks’s longtime collaborator Liz Diamond talking about a “woman with a big butt,” and she “realized that’s who should be at the center of the play.” After researching Baartman, “freaks” and freak shows, and autopsies of people like Baartman, she was still having trouble getting a handle on “the right way to tell the story.” It finally came to her: one line she heard, “He gave me a haircut.” From that, Parks “knew what I wasn’t getting right. I wasn’t getting the intimacy right.” And then the play came together for her. The writer knew right then how to tell the story, who the characters were, the order of the scenes, the structure of the script—and she wrote the play in about a week.
Parks wants people to know, however, that Venus “is based on fact but it’s all fabricated. It’s based on fact—. . . based on pieces of research that I did in the library about her and other ‘freaks.’” She explains:
So it’s an amalgam, it’s her story and I sort of brought in other stories of other people who were objects of interest, ridicule. It’s not the history channel. It’s an examination of the way things had happened to her which were unfortunate, the way she tried to have a better life and it didn’t work out, and the way we love now, in which there are so many similarities. The way we try to improve our lives and end up failing.
The story of Venus begins in 1810, when Baartman (Zainab Jah) is lured away from her job as a servant in the house of The Man (John Ellison Conlee) in the Dutch Cape Colony, now part of the Republic of South Africa, by The Man’s Brother (Randy Danson) to tour Europe as a natural phenomenon (aka: “freak”) and make lots of money. (The Dutch colonists labeled the Khoikhoi people ‘Hottentots,’ today considered a derogatory name, in imitation of two characteristic sounds, hot and tot, of the click language of the Khoikhoi.) Upon arriving in England, however, Venus is sold to a sideshow run by The Mother-Showman (Danson) and becomes a star attraction known as the Venus Hottentot. (The slave trade had been abolished in the British Empire in 1807.)
Scantily clad, Venus exhibits her “singular anatimy,” bringing in crowds for the side show owners and raking in money, of which she sees very little. Europeans are drawn to her as a curiosity, and the men find her an object of prurience and lust; for an additional fee, a spectator can “stick my hand inside her cage and have a feel.” (Foreman’s 1996 production was less sexualized than deBessonet’s version, and, indeed, the script because, as Parks observed, Foreman “was not comfortable with the play’s unseemly aspects.”) Soon becoming adept at displaying herself and understanding what the people want from her as a curiosity—Parks’s Venus is complicit in her own exploitation—she negotiates for more of the take and then tries to break out on her own, but can’t overcome the social strictures of the times. Eventually she’s purchased by an aristocratic French doctor, Georges Cuvier, represented in the play by The Baron Docteur (Conlee), who falls in love with her.
Despite having a wife whom he all but abandons, the Baron Docteur keeps Venus as his mistress until he begins losing his professional reputation and social standing. He’s constantly challenged by his Grade-School Chum (Danson), “the one who used to pull the wings off of the flies,” and then locks Venus away until, after a tragically short life, she dies of what may have been gonorrhea, though her exhibitors blame exposure to cold temperatures because of her skimpy attire. (Historically, after her death, Cuvier dissected Venus’ body before an audience of scientists, and her remains, along with a plaster cast of her body, continued to be exhibited for years. Saartjie Baartman’s body was finally returned to South Africa in 2002 where she was buried with honor and she has become a historical icon.)
Parks invented the affair between the Baron Docteur and Venus. Cuvier and Baartman never had any kind of relationship; all he did was dissect her remains after her death and publicize his “findings.” But Parks maintains that Venus is a play about “love”: it’s partly why she chose Baartman as a subject and why she named the play Venus, after the Roman goddess of love. Director deBessonet the Public Theater’s Resident Director and Artistic Director of Public Works, asserts that Parks “talked about the fact that Venus is a love story,” though what she means by that specifically is open to interpretation, I think. Throughout the play, Venus asks, “Love me?”—but whether she’s beseeching the spectators (both us and the diegetic audience within the play) or the Baron Docteur is situational—and the Baron Docteur constantly professes his love for Venus—though, of course, he subjects her to anatomical examinations by his scientific colleagues, he’s essentially letting her die so he can dissect her, he twice aborts a child of which he’s the father, and he’s probably given her a venereal disease that he allows to go untreated and which certainly at least contributes to her death. For the Love of the Venus is a love story, of sorts—however twisted—but it represents not the Baron Docteur and Venus but the doctor and his wife in a reconciliation. The question Venus raises, then, is whether romantic love is really just a form of exploitation, a means to a less lofty end, and who’s manipulating whom.
Even this summary sounds a little more straightforward than Parks’s structure really is. For one thing, in addition to the two main characters of Venus and the Baron Docteur, plus the supporting characters played by Randy Danson (the Mother-Showman and the Grade-School Chum), Parks created the figure of The Negro Resurrectionist (Kevin Mambo), a kind of carnival barker-cum-Brechtian commentator-cum-Our Town-style Stage Manager-cum-balladeer (with songs composed by Parks), who wanders through the play dressed all in black, including tails and a top hat (which makes him look slightly Dickensian), providing information in the form of “Footnotes,” announcing the scene titles, or leading the seven-voice Chorus. That Chorus (Birgit Huppuch, Adam Green, Tony Torn, Julian Rozzell, Patrena Murray, Hannah Cabell, Reynaldo Piniella) variously represents the Human Wonders of the sideshow, the crowd of Spectators, members of the Court in which Venus is examined, the group of Anatomists to whom the Baron Docteur delivers his findings, and the cast of the play-within-the-play, For the Love of the Venus, a sort of parodic commentary on the Baron Docteur’s and Venus’ relationship as portrayed by a Bride-to-Be, her Young Man, and his family.
Scenes of For the Love of the Venus are enacted irregularly throughout Venus (announced by the Negro Resurrectionist) in an exaggerated style and in 18th-century costumes and perukes as if it were a Restoration drama. They are performed on whatever configuration of the set the larger play is using at the time, and the sole audience for them is the Baron Docteur. He, in turn, is watched from a distance by Venus.
The dialogue is largely written in Parks’s idiosyncratic blank verse, with some passages in rhyme and occasional lines ending in rhymed couplets. In addition to her practice of writing the text in words spelled out the way they sound, rather than the way they’re conventionally written—an idiosyncrasy that won’t be apparent to a spectator—Parks also divides her script into an Overture and 31 scenes (one of which is subdivided into 10 lettered smaller scenes). The scenes are numbered in reverse order, Scene 31 to Scene 1, as if they are counting down to the story’s outcome. (The Overture announces Venus’ death and then the play flashes back to the saga’s beginning, so we know how the story ends.) These peculiarities, too, wouldn’t be noticeable to a playgoer except that the Negro Resurrectionist announces some scenes by number and title. (Scene 16, “Intermission,” set “Several Years from Now: In the Anatomical Theatre of Tübingen,” is the Baron Docteur’s lecture on his “Dis-(re)-memberment of the Venus Hottentot” after her death. It’s based on Cuvier’s actual dissection notes published in 1817.)
I think Parks is amazing, and Venus was, indeed, an interesting and engaging experience at the theater. Diana dismissed Venus because she said it didn’t explore anything new or revealing about its subject, which I’ll identify for now as cultural exploitation, objectification, voyeurism, and, of course, systemic racism, European superiority, and imperialism. (This story is about Europeans and Africans, but the implication for, say, Americans and Indians or Aussies and Aborigines, and so on, is clear.) I disagree with Diana, but even if she’s right, the way Parks tells the story is startling and provocative, as well as moving. I may be a sucker, but that counts for a lot in my theater criteria. Well-executed theatricality, either in production or in dramaturgy, can get me off, irrespective of message, theme, or point.
Furthermore, if what Parks is writing about is so inconsequential and has been fully explored and expressed, how come we’re still experiencing it and suffering from it today, not just in this country, but in the entire world (make that “Whole Entire World”)? Some stories need to be told and retold; some points need to be made and made again. Athol Fugard kept writing about apartheid over and over until it fell—and he’s still writing about its repercussions and its legacy. August Wilson wrote ten plays about black life in America, much of them recovering the same issues, problems, and injustices, and we’ve named a Broadway theater after him. Sometimes audiences hear a story—but they haven’t listened. Parks is right to keep telling it—until everyone gets it. As my friend, playwright and sometime reviewer Kirk Woodward, said to me, “‘didn’t say anything new’ is about my least favorite ‘critical’ comment of all. Is that a criterion at all, and if so, why? And how does [Diana] think plays ‘say’ things? By thinking up new ideas? Like what? ‘Love your neighbor’? ‘Respect each other’? How about all those new ideas in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare?” We revive plays, even though the story’s been told and the points have been made, because we need to hear them again. That’s another thing about great plays.
A lot of the same playwriting techniques I wrote about in the Black Man report are evident in Venus, especially Repetition & Revision, or “Rep & Rev,” as Parks calls it, so there’s no contending that it comes from the same author or the same authorial impulse. There’s so much to cover in the script and the production of Venus, just considering it all will be Herculean. The dramatist’s general philosophy is clearly invoked throughout Venus, as it is in most of her work, but if I try to discuss it all even in passing, I’ll be writing a dissertation, not a blog post! So I’ll restrict myself to the production and mention the larger implications of the play only briefly and let readers look at the scores of other sources for in-depth discussions of Parks’s themes and techniques (including my Last Black Man report, found at http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2016/12/the-death-of-last-black-man-in-whole.html, which also includes a brief bio of the playwright).
Lear deBessonet’s staging, which runs two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission, is far simpler than Foreman’s. The first part of the play, which moves from southern Africa to England to France, is centered on a kind of scaffold-like assemblage—Ben Brantley likened it to “a European indoor circus” in the New York Times—within which are established the various locales of the plot: the Cape Colony house where Baartman works, the room in London where she lives while working at the sideshow, and so on. When the Baron Docteur moves Venus to Paris, the set becomes a more representative suggestion of their bedroom—except that a row of disembodied (prop) heads encircle the white-painted set staring down from above, suggesting spectators in an operating theater or preserved specimens in an anthropological lab. To reinforce the resemblance to a circus, hanging over the stage are two concentric rings of lights which sometimes descend to become, essentially, a circus ring. (The scenery is designed by Matt Saunders, with lighting by Justin Townsend.) All told, Signature’s Venus is less theatrically exciting than the Public’s 21 years ago, but it’s also more Parks’s art than an amalgam of hers and the director's. (I probably wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t seen deBessonet’s rendering. That’s another quality of great plays: they can support many interpreting artists’ visions.)
Emilio Sosa’s costumes divide into three groups. First are realistically designed dresses and suits for characters played by John Ellison Conlee (The Man, The Baron Docteur) and Randy Danson (The Man’s Brother, The Mother-Showman, The Grade-School Chum); even Venus’ clothes (when she’s dressed) are essentially realistic 19th-century attire—although Zainab Jah wears a strategically designed, flesh-colored “fat” suit, which she dons on stage at the start of the performance. Sosa, however, has pushed the women’s dresses further into the 19th century so that their silhouettes resemble that of Venus, with a protruding rear end—enhanced by hoops, voluminous undergarments, or bustles—a style that didn’t reappear in Europe until after Victoria became Queen of England 20 years after Venus’ death. The second group of costumes are those of the characters played by the Chorus: the Human Wonders, the Anatomists, the Spectators, and so on. These are more fanciful and paired with brightly-colored wigs of a rainbow of unnatural hues. (Sandy MacDonald of Time Out New York described the chorus members as “Crayola-coiffed,” which is apt. Wigs, hair styles, and make-up were designed by J. Jared Janas.) Third are Sosa’s costumes for the characters in For the Love of the Venus, which, as I noted, are exaggerations of Restoration-era garb—an earlier period in which women’s silhouettes were augmented at the hip with farthingales as wide as the women were tall (even with towering wigs, which Sosa also employs here).
Like Last Black Man (and several other productions I’ve seen lately), Venus is an ensemble play. Zainab Jah’s Venus and John Ellison Conlee’s Baron Docteur have central roles in the script and they have multiple scenes together, often one-on-one, but the play as a whole is an ensemble piece. The key is that all the performers have to be top-flight actors who all draw from and feed into one another’s portrayals as the play, not the performances, determine who gets the spotlight. This director deBessonet and her cast accomplish magnificently. Further, deBessonet and the company all handle Parks’s difficult text fluidly and with complete mastery (only three members of the Chorus list previous Parks experience in their program bios; even the director doesn’t name a Parks play on her résumé). Jah, seen last year on Broadway in Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, is the only cast member who doesn’t have to shift from one character to another (though Conlee does only once at the very beginning of the play); however, she does develop several personae from Saartjie Baartman to The Girl to The Venus Hottentot, and even in the last guise, Jah displays different personalities as she becomes more self-knowledgeable and worldly wise. The actress balances all her personae smoothly and artfully.
Of course, none of this is depicted in realistic acting, rather in a more presentational style befitting a vaudeville sketch, say. (As exaggerated as the acting of the main narrative is, the performance style in For the Love of the Venus is even more stylized.) The Negro Resurrectionist of Kevin Mambo mostly remains outside the story—he has a recurring role as a former body snatcher—and his performance is entirely presentational as he addresses the audience like a kind of MC.
(‘Resurrectionist,’ it should be noted, is another word for ‘body snatcher,’ but an alternative definition is “One who brings something back into use or notice again,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary. This aligns with Parks’s concept of “re-membering,” the reclamation of lost black history and the return of people of African heritage into the historical record from which they’ve been erased. It also signifies reassembling the black people who’ve been dismembered, both metaphorically and, as Baartman’s story shows, actually. This idea is further invoked in the title Parks gives to Scene 16, the Baron Docteur’s lecture: “The Dis-(re)-memberment of the Venus Hottentot.”)
Show-Score gave Venus an average score of 73 based on a survey of 28 critics’ reviews, with 75% of the notices positive, 18% mixed, and 7% negative. The high score was a single 90 (Theatre is Easy), backed up with six 85’s; Show-Score’s lowest rating was 40 (This Week in New York Blog, Lighting & Sound America—the only two negative notices). My round-up will cover 18 reviews.
In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz called the STC production of Venus “an absorbing revival,” which “puts [Parks’s] own fictionalized and stylized spin” on a story he dubbed “sicko stuff.” Dziemianowicz reported, “The storytelling is highly theatrical. The script flows with poetry, music and moments that pop” as it “goes from gritty carnival sideshow to fancy French domestic setting.” DeBessonet “guides a fine ensemble,” with “evocative staging.” Matt Windman of am New York characterized the “excellent revival” as a “disturbing and disorienting” drama which “is pageant-like, intellectual.” The AMNY reviewer proposed, “Whether the play’s bold and self-aware theatricality . . . adds to or detracts from the impact of the storytelling is up for debate,” but concluded that “thanks to superb production values and an absorbing and ambiguous performance from Jah, who keeps you guessing about the extent to which Baartman controls her own fate, ‘Venus’ works over the audience like an intoxicating spell.”
Long Island Newsday’s Elisabeth Vincentelli dubbed Venus a “Dream-like telling of a nightmarish true story” in her “Bottom Line.” Vincentelli warned that the play “is no period-perfect petticoat affair” because Parks is “the most poetically minded of major contemporary American playwrights.” The playwright’s “hybrid of fact and fancy,” which has received “a vivid, visually striking revival by” director deBessonet, is a tale through which “resilience, humor and love run.” Venus “never devolves into a treaty on racism and colonialism,” asserted Vincentelli, because “Parks creates a distance from the story’s fundamental sadness” through “extreme stylization”; the production “has a surprisingly light touch.” With special praise for Jah’s “balance of pathos and dignity," the Newsday reviewer acknowledged that “the production benefits from an excellent ensemble.” In the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, Max McGuinness proclaimed, “Venus is about a legendary rear end.” The play, in which “we see . . . not a depiction of the real Baartman so much as an overtly sexualised representation of a quasi-mythical figure,” “has a keen provocative edge,” wrote McGuinness—in terms of “cultural and psychological analysis.” The FT reviewer, though, continued, “As drama, Venus is less successful—because its steady fixation on Baartman’s sexual objectification becomes repetitive over the course of two hours, and because the script never quite replicates the bleak poetry of” Last Black Man. He added that director deBessonet’s “pacing also seems too uniformly ponderous while the ensemble’s delivery can sound hectoring.” McGuinness continued by stating, “Baartman endured endless sexual exploitation. All we have to do is sit and watch. Perhaps that shouldn’t be too easy.”
Brantley of the Times denigrated STC’s Venus as a “patchy revival” (while quipping about Jah’s “fulsomely padded body stocking” and making references to Kim Kardashian’s “traffic-stopping body”). In contrast to the 1996 première, Brantley asserted, “This latest reincarnation has a new clarity that illuminates both the script’s prescience and its flaws” and deBessonet’s direction reveals the play “to be an unexpectedly traditional piece by the standards of Ms. Parks.” The Timesman explained: “Though it abounds in the distancing devices of Epic Theater—anachronisms, songs, historical footnotes, a multifarious chorus—‘Venus’ now seems like a surprisingly conventional cousin to Bernard Pomerance’s ‘The Elephant Man.’” (Brantley was but one of the several reviewers who saw a similarity between Venus and Pomerance’s 1977 play about another 19th-century anatomical outlier who became a public curiosity.) Though the Times review-writer described Matt Saunders’s set as “handsomely designed . . . with a color palette out of Sarah’s Africa,” he felt that deBessonet’s staging “never achieves a compelling unity of vision, or the hypnotic flow of Signature’s recent revival of” Last Black Man. He blamed the deficiencies “partly [on] the script, which alternates among pointed Brechtian didacticism, incantatory repetition, naturalistic dialogue and an artificial play-within-a-play. It’s an approach that demands a lot of its performers.” Lauding Jah’s performance as Venus, Brantley judged that, “for the most part, the talented cast . . . doesn’t yet match the stylish precision of its surroundings.” (An editorial note: as his phraseology suggests, Brantley saw the play in a “critics’ preview,” which are essentially dress rehearsals before an audience; I saw the performance more than a month after the production had opened.)
In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section, the unnamed reviewer reported that Venus “constructs and deconstructs Saartjie Baartman” but added, “For all the play’s looky-looky theatricality and audacious language, Parks’s ultimate goal is to afford Baartman her own dignity and desires, to plumb the heart and the mind inside that body.” As for the production, the New Yorker writer summarized: “Though deBessonet’s production sometimes chafes against the script’s stylistic variety, Zainab Jah . . . gives a poignant, spirited performance, with John Ellison Conlee as her anatomist lover and Kevin Mambo as a baleful narrator.” TONY’s MacDonald declared, “In the two decades since its Public Theater debut, Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus has lost none of its power to unsettle and appall.” In fact, said MacDonald, it’s “gained in shock value” and the STC revival “is devastating.” The reviewer from TONY warned, “If the first act seems mannered and arch, beware: You’re being set up.”
Michael Dale, labeling Venus “devastating” on Broadway World in deBessonet’s “perfectly cold and tense production,” applauded Jah for “[b]alancing pathos, power and enthusiastic sensuality.” The play is “aggressively unsentimental” and “the tragedy is heartbreaking.” On Theatre’s Leiter Side, Samuel L. Leiter called the production a “visually elaborate but notably uneven” mounting of a play Leiter labeled “overlong . . . and frequently lifeless.” The blogger explained:
Much of it is juvenile and lacking in wit, and its structure as misshapen as the woman whose story it dramatizes. Poetic dialogue mingles uncomfortably with the prosaic. Fortunately, it gets a finely nuanced performance from Jah, who brings charm and intelligence to playing this unusual, abused, enslaved, yet determined woman.
“The talented deBessonet’s effortful production can do little to blanket the play’s weaknesses,” added Leiter. He was also disturbed by Parks’s literal depiction of Venus’ appearance, which he inferred “is perhaps meant to make us feel complicit in her exploitation when we gaze at her.” The review-writer continued, “It does, however, feel as though it’s Parks herself who’s complicit in her exploitation. Some might prefer seeing the Venus Hottentot depicted without prosthetics—or at least such a realistic one.” As for the ensemble, Leiter felt it’s comprised of “fine actors,” but that “you may still wish the curtain could be drawn on them.” He complained, “Exaggerated costumes, brightly colored wigs, clownish overacting, and cross-gender campiness can’t hide the doomed struggle to create an appropriately satirical environment.” In his “Bottom line,” Leiter asserted that “this Venus is one Hottentot not hot to trot.” (Leiter’s review received a rating of 50 on Show-Score.)
Elyse Sommer dubbed the STC revival “a visually stunning and finely cast new production” which “features a large cast and showcases the author’s penchant for a non-linear, somewhat hard to follow, time traveling structure” on CurtainUp. Despite this, Sommer acknowledged, “Venus . . . is not all that hard to follow. However, it’s painfully hard to watch.” Calling deBessonet the production’s “ideal director,” the CU reviewer praised Jah as “magnificently heartbreaking,” while Mambo “is outstanding” and Conlee “eerily charismatic.” Sommer concluded, “For all its colorful staging and fine acting, Venus can’t quite escape coming off as a rather obvious history lesson, but one, especially Parks’ many fans, won’t want to miss.” On TheaterMania, Hayley Levitt described Venus as “challenging” and “unnerving,” adding that it’s “by no means a pleasant, easy two hours of passively absorbing the scenery. It requires active spectators, which, ironically . . ., is exactly what makes Venus so discomfiting.” Levitt explained how
audiences who were ready to acknowledge the depravity of this story are transformed into the depraved spectators who facilitated it. This, among other emotional and intellectual ambiguities, make Venus incredibly difficult to sit through, and yet, they are also what make it such an intriguing work that has inspired extensive analysis since its original premiere.
The TM review-writer applauded the case, singling put Jah (“superb”) and Conlee (“excellent”), and concluded by questioning:
To listen and become one of Baartman’s appalling posthumous voyeurs—or to turn a deaf ear to a piece of history? Parks does not seem content ignoring history, and yet, her body of work leaves open many questions about the correct way to engage with it. The only way to start answering those questions—for yourself at least—is to sit in the discomfort and pay attention.
Howard Miller of Talkin’ Broadway characterized Venus as “a three-ring circus of a play” which “asks much of its audience.” Parks’s play, reported Miller, sees Venus’ story “through multiple lenses that set things whirling head-spinningly in diverse directions, encompassing naturalism, satire, surrealism, absurdism, choral recitations, random pieces of a play-within-the-play, and political, historic, and medical discourse.” Though he found Jah’s performance “tough, proud and clear-eyed,” the TB reviewer felt that “over the course of the evening, things become rather less coherent through the disruptive insertion at seemingly random intervals of” the play-within-the-play and the “footnotes” delivered by the Negro Resurrectionist and the Baron Docteur’s lecture, both of which Miller dubbed “tangential.” “These deliberate interruptions” the reviewer asserted, “jolt the narrative and remind us of the artifice involved in the play’s design, even as they encourage us to mull over the play’s broader themes.” He summed up his evaluation by stating: “There is an ironic, Brechtian tone to much of the proceedings, but the dizzying and clashing styles challenge our ability to immerse ourselves in Saartjie’s all-too-human story.” Miller’s conclusion was that Venus “is a decidedly challenging play to pull off without losing its focus, and director Lear deBessonet has not been entirely successful at balancing all of the jarring elements.”
On TheaterScene, Joel Benjamin opened his notice (considered “mixed” by Show-Score at a rating of 65) declaring, “The problem at the heart of Venus is that its author Suzan-Lori Parks does not, fundamentally, trust the strength of her central figure.” Labeling the play “bizarrely overwritten,” Benjamin found that “the inherent emotional power of this figure goes missing, as if Parks is purposely avoiding an Elephant Man redux by showing off every theatrical gimmick in her playwrighting [sic] arsenal.” The playwright’s “over-the-top stylistic distortions prevent our getting close to and feeling for this poor creature,” explained the TS review-writer. Coming perilously close to telling Parks to write a different play (something to which I strenuously object in a review), Benjamin wrote, “Instead of delving into Venus’ psychology and the racial attitudes of the times—sadly still an important issue—Parks diffuses the potential power of this story by mounting a giddy carnival sideshow, full of exaggerated[l]y cartoonish characters.” He further disparaged the For the Love of the Venus diegetic play as “ridiculous” because it “mocks Venus’ painful story.” The affair with the Baron Docteur, said Benjamin, “turns the play into a nighttime soap” because Parks “turns [Venus] into a spurned lover instead [of a mistreated woman], diminishing her in the process.” With praise for the “luxuriously appointed production” and “an adept cast” headed by Jah, the reviewer found that director deBessonet “does what she can to bring to life Ms. Parks’ unwieldy vision, but the flamboyance of this production and its unwieldy structure overwhelm her efforts.” He felt that “Parks works too hard with little more than superficial results,” asserting, “There’s a lot there to savor but most of the superficial decoration helps only to avoid what should have been a moving portrait.” Benjamin’s final assessment was: “Although Venus takes a little-known incident and attempts to turn it into a weighty treatise, Suzan-Lori Parks’ extraordinary talents for once failed her.”
Tami Shaloum calls Venus “thought-provoking” on Stage Buddy, observing that the STC revival is staged by deBessonet in “a highly stylized manner. . . performed almost entirely like a sideshow.” With a performance by Jah that’s “a spectacularly humanistic portrayal,” our Stage Buddy reported, “Venus has a dark and difficult subject matter that Parks treats with utmost humanity, and the beauty of the language does much to counterbalance the brutality of The Venus’ life.” Warning that Parks “does not write for the passive observer,” Tulis McCall of New York Theatre Guide affirmed that Venus “makes you sit up and pay attention—even if you don’t want to.” McCall reported, “Each performance is finely tuned, and the direction of Lear DeBessonet brings the entire production to full throttled life.” The review-writer added as a caveat, “Whatever the facts, it is this element of the story that brings us into Sarah’s heart and makes the outcome all the more shattering.”
On Theater Pizzazz, Carol Rocamora reported that the revival is staged “with flair and confidence, capitalizing on its numerous styles—including Brechtian story-telling, vaudeville, and surreal absurdism.” Similarities with other works aside, Rocamora asserted that “in the end, Venus is a unique creation by a unique playwright with an urgent voice.” The Huffington Post’s Steven Suskin labeled Venus “an intriguing and arresting work” in which “the playwright’s incisive, probing imagination matched with clearly inborn theatricality is very much in evidence.” Praising the cast, the TP review-writer affirmed that deBessonet . . . does a masterful job” of staging the sideshow-like production. “What strikes us most, though, is the sheer theatricality conjured twenty years ago by Parks,” proclaimed Suskin: “the magic comes not only from the dialogue but from the entire world which the playwright has envisioned.” It culminates in “a fascinating evening.”
On WNBC television, the network-owned station in New York City, Robert Kahn dubbed the STC presentation of Venus “an adventurous revival” that “features carnival-like and sometimes too-cluttered direction by Lear deBessonet.” Kahn summed up the play’s impact:
Empowered? Feminist? Pragmatic? In control? Jah’s Venus is all those things in degrees, in spite of the choices she makes, and the choices that are cruelly made for her. In this revival, the Hottentot’s lifelong adult imprisonments are almost—almost—besides the point.
[The description and period photos and illustrations of the Hottentot Venus have always brought to my mind the figure of an ancient goddess described in James Michener’s The Source, a 1965 novel set at a fictional archeological dig near Akko in northern Israel. Discovered at level 14 of Tell Makor (tell, or tel, is Arabic for ‘hill’ or ‘mound’ and in archeology designates a site of a buried ancient dwelling; makor is Hebrew for ‘source’), which contained the ruins of the 23rd century B.C.E. Canaanite town, the clay statuette represented another incarnation of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, known as Astarte, the Canaanite goddess of fertility and sexuality. (Her name had several variations among other peoples of the region.) Here’s how Michener depicts the figure:
She was six inches high, nude, very feminine, with wide hips and hands cupped below circular breasts. She was erotic and plump, delightful to study and reassuring to have in one’s possession.
[The novelist also observes that the pagan Astarte was “a permanent temptation to the Hebrews,” just as the Hottentot Venus was to the European men of the 1810s.]