When director Lear deBessonet’s visually elaborate but notably uneven staging of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Park’s play Venus begins, actress Zainab Jah carefully dons a body suit that closely matches her chocolate brown skin and creates a strikingly realistic, near-nude impression of the play’s subject, Saartjie (also Sarah, Sara, and Sartje) Baartman, a.k.a. the Venus Hottentot.
Baartman has long been a topic of socio-political interest to academics, which also has been true of Parks’s play since it premiered at the Public Theater in 1996. Aside from its obvious concern with various sensitive concerns (female body image fetishism, female subjugation and commodification, colonization, slavery, freak shows, scientific racism, and the like), Venus' fascination lies principally in its historical narrative—when it’s not fabricating fictional material—about Baartman’s experiences. One debated aspect of those experiences is the degree to which she herself, mistreated as she was, had agency in them; the play suggests she knew very well what she was doing.
As a play, Venus, now being revived at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre, is overlong (nearly two and a quarter hours) and frequently lifeless. 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 choice of literalizing Baartman’s appearance is perhaps meant to make us feel complicit in her exploitation when we gaze at her. 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 in John Merrick's presentation in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, a play that has much in common with Venus. Projections of period illustrations of her could easily help us envision her appearance.
Written in 31 chronologically arranged scenes, Venus tells a straightforward story in highly theatricalized terms. A top-hatted narrator, the Negro Resurrectionist (Kevin Mambo), who brings to mind the storyteller in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, comments for our edification, occasionally sings solo (music by Brandon Wolcott), plays dramatic characters, and introduces each scene by announcing its number from 31 on down; this device backfires once you find yourself counting how many scenes remain before you finally get to “1.”
As so often in dramatized historical accounts (Shakespeare’s a good example), the playwright uses her research, not for a literal transcription of events but as the basis for an artistic work in which characters are conflated, people are assigned actions they never did, and, in various ways, the historical facts are elided to make a point. Such alterations can be tricky, especially for audiences who check the facts online the minute they get a chance.
J.T. Rogers’s Oslo, for example, takes liberties with the complex story of the 1993 Oslo Accords but in a way that manages not to break the eggshells he steps on. Parks also gets away with soft-shoeing over some factual eggs but we get scrambled ones on several occasions. This is most apparent in Act Two, when she creates a romantic relationship between Baartman and the Baron Docteur (John Ellison Conlee), a physician that the play (not history) claims took her to Paris both as his mistress and to advance his scientific reputation.
The talented deBessonet's effortful production can do little to blanket the play’s weaknesses. Act One, using a familiar show business-as-life metaphor, is presented as a carnival-like sideshow (with an excellent set by Matt Saunders; amusing period costumes by Emilio Sosa; and versatile lighting by Justin Townsend); the ensemble serves as a chorus, as freaks, and as cartoonish characters, some of whom perform broadly as if they’re in an old-fashioned play. In the ensemble are such fine actors as Hannah Cabell, Birgit Huppuch, and Tony Torn but you may still wish the curtain could be drawn on them.
Exaggerated costumes, brightly colored wigs, clownish overacting, and cross-gender campiness can’t hide the doomed struggle to create an appropriately satirical environment. Much extravagantly unfunny business is involved, like a trial scene with a chorus of white-wigged British judges. At times it feels that someone's sucked the music out of what should have been a musical.
Act One’s ostentation—except for a few occasions—is abandoned in Act Two, which clashes stylistically with what's preceded it. It's located in a white set that serves mainly as a Paris bedroom and a medical establishment, with fake heads looking down from overhead like witnesses in an operating theatre. The bedroom is shared by Baartman and the Baron Docteur for unconvincing romantic scenes that, apart from a few heightened moments, abandon the hi-jinx of Act One for realistic domestic soap opera.
Bottom line: this Venus is one Hottentot not hot to trot.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 4