During the 15-minute intermission, the Baron Docteur (Elliot Villar DRA ’07) lectures on his fresh autopsy of a Khoikhoi woman whose imperially large ass launched her into fame as a freak show phenomenon. Above and beyond, a maudlin mademoiselle (Emily Dorsch DRA ’07) hovers like a ghost in the mezzanine. Every so often, she declaims a banal verse from her love letters before letting them fall onto the graveyard of crimson seats of the University Theatre. With a dildo strapped onto his nose, Mr. Privates (Tom E. Russell DRA ’07) peeks out his head from behind the proscenium and performs auto-fellatio, marking the end of the intermission.
The living intermission of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Venus” functions as a compelling microcosm of the greater intellectual and visual landscape of the play. Just as the set itself straddles the proscenium, the Intermission hovers between the thresholds of reality and imagination, present and past. Director Jessi D. Hill DRA ’07 confronts the audience with the choice to remain spectators, and the action on the stage encapsulates the interplay between the science of empire and the hyperbolic nature of love.
During the real time of Wednesday night’s intermission, Venus was dead, a fetishized object of imperial medical anthropology represented by an anatomical portrait. But in the imaginary time of the theatrical event itself, Venus was alive, hungry for money, chocolate, love and a child — she was at once an agent and a victim of modernity.
Like a sorcerer, Hill equates the act of spectating with the responsibility for the existence and the memory of Venus Hottentot. And rightfully so: the excavation and survival of dismembered, erased African-American histories is at the core of Parks’s project as playwright.
The play takes as its inspiration the narrative of Miss Saartjie Baartman (Sarita Covington DRA ’07) and her journey from a colonized South Africa to the freak show circuit in England and finally into the bed of the loving Docteur in Paris. Parks also weaves scenes of a French vaudeville melodrama “The Venus Hottentot” into the play, compounding the layers of representation and metatheatricality. The Negro Resurrectionist (Brian Henry DRA ’07) serves as the ringmaster, navigating the erratic text composed of academic historical sources, melodramatic dialogues and poetic soliloquies.
Hill is sensitive to the juxtaposition of textual forms. She channels the violently overwhelming deluge of ideas from racist Darwinism to the commodification of the body into a sonata, punctuated by the counting of coins. Blaring vaudevillian freak show fanfares sublimate into silent dialogues. A quintet of live musicians awkwardly dressed in Victorian garb underscores the rhythmic and tonal oscillation, but their presence and music was excessive, at times even distracting.
The ensemble of actors is spell-binding, performing not only a variety of characters but, more importantly, a diversity of performance styles. Among them, Caitlin Clouthier DRA ’08 and Charles Semine DRA ’07 consistently inhabit the hyperbolic melodrama and clownish comedy of their various roles. With precision and finesse, they sculpt the hilarious vocal and physical masks that these acting styles require. It is, however, the conviction and emotional nudity behind the masks that make their performances gripping.
Likewise, Bryce Pinkham DRA ’08 as the androgynous Mother-Showman relishes the ambiguity of his relationship to Venus. While Covington as Venus poses like a circus lion on a striped cube, her tamer accentuates the strain on her statue, forcing her to stick her butt out more and to smile. And she does.
Covington reveals with subtlety how Venus compromises her self and her morality in order to survive. Nonchalantly, she adapts and changes her body, her voice, her language and ideas of motherhood to accommodate the demands of her society. It is always ambiguous whether or not her appropriation of these impositions is torture or emancipation. Moreover, we are never sure if she loves or abhors being exploited on the stage. Her moral ambivalence is fascinating.
While posing on her pedestal and smiling as the Mother-Showman requested, Venus pauses and realizes, “Oh God, I’m loved.” The second half of the piece pits the three men who own and showcase Venus — the Docteur, the Mother-Showman and the Negro Resurrectionist — against each other. The problem is that it was only Villar’s Docteur who went beyond his love for Venus as object and possessed a true love for Venus as a companion and lover, so the tension between the men that Hill tries to build is weak, if not baseless.
Instead of relegating love to a tongue-in-cheek box of chocolates in the shape of a heart and to tamer-object dynamics, the production ought to have allowed for more glimmers of passion between Venus and her men. The haunting imagery, meaty discourse and nuanced musicality is beautiful, but the thrust of the piece as a whole is forgettable. The absence of passionate love for Venus leaves her story feeling more like a distant memory than a visceral experience.
Yale School of Drama
Friday, 8 p.m.
Saturday, 2 & 8 p.m