Venus: A Vessel for Others Under the Big Top

Local Arts Reviews

Venus:A Vessel for Others Under the Big Top

The Big Top (southwest corner of West Fifth & Lamar),

through September 26

Running time: 2 hrs, 30 min

It's there, on the corner of Fifth and Lamar: the Big Top. Under the stretched canvas, you find the luscious, exotic, colorful cocktail of circus paraphernalia. A 19th-century, Barnumesque air permeates the tent: ringmaster and clowns, freaks and guy ropes, secrets from the hinterland of human consciousness revealed (all for a few coins).

For Suzan-Lori Parks' play Venus, Salvage Vanguard Theater has put the sometimes reprehensibly sleazy world of the circus sideshow on display underneath this magnificent, open tent. The main attraction and subject for the story -- the Venus of the title -- is The Venus Hottentot, the nom-de-thèatre of an African black girl, Saartjie Bartmaan, whose rear end was so large that it drew crowds -- first in London, then in Paris. Put on display by a freak show owner, then by her anatomist lover, Bartmaan lived as a pampered slave, a diva on display. Upon her death, said lover then macerated her corpse, popping it in a chemical bath to remove unwanted tissue and reveal a more pristine skeleton for his examination: Why was this girl's butt so big? Should a modern audience be shocked at the callous disregard on all parts toward this poor girl? It's hard to say.

Director Jason Neulander's production goes like gangbusters at the start, full of variety and frolic, as a tight ensemble portrays dozens of characters, racing through demanding costume changes and style shifts, and generally entertaining the hell out of the audience, all under that big top.

All the elements are there for a good night out: the wonderful setting, designed by Kristin T. Abhalter, with circus banners by Michael Kranes, and costumes and make-up by Regina Del Pico that push the scuzzy world of circus detritus with detail and color. The most fun and frivolity in Del Pico's designs are reserved for the four chorus members, sometimes called The 8 Human Wonders, who sport white faces and rosy cheeks, and a slew of costumes for quick changes into a wide array of characters. Andy Fisher, Amy Hopper, David Sangalli, and Deanna Shoemaker make up the clown chorus and make the tightly woven vocal and physical work look effortless. Corey Gagne joins this ace quartet in its rapid role switches when he is not the sinister but comic Mother-Showman, a drag role in which he excels.

It's amazing, then, that for all the excitement of the play's environment and its strengths in design, direction, and acting, its message comes across as tepid at best, and worse, as the scenes count down to the finale, the play drones on and on. Perhaps because the story peeks from the fringes of history, the play feels watered down. April Matthis' Bartmaan is passive, either standing on display or sitting behind a curtain, stalwart and still, practically emotionless. And Kranes, as her French lover, is equally uniform in his performance: After so much intense, gleeful melee, the play seems to run out of gas all around.

And the play makes no direct appeal as to the rank moral or ethical behavior that pervades. One gets the sense that Bartmaan's keepers, her audience, and her closest companions are simple scalawags -- a Brechtian distance stops the audience short of empathizing with a rather ordinary woman cast into the limelight as a freak or from despising those around her. Kept in a cage, or as a kept woman, Bartmaan seems nothing more than a vessel for others who fuck her, masturbate at the sight of her, enslave and use her. She offers no sustained resistance, which leaves a big "so what," lingering in the night.

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