Most theater devotees know Suzan-Lori Parks as the playwright who created the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Topdog/Underdog. Olney Theater Center has chosen to mount one of her earlier works, a piece called Venus. Venus is done on a grand scale; although it boasts a highly skilled cast, the show lacks focus and depth.
Venus tells the true story of Sartje Baartman. Born in South Africa in the late 1700s, Baartman was of Kohoisan descent. The Kohoisan clan came to be known in Europe as the Hottentots. They were also known for their women’s unique bodily proportions. Specifically, it was large buttocks that caused notice. Baartman exhibited this common trait and was recognized for it. The young woman tried to capitalize on her form by joining up with a white entrepreneur who promised that she could work for two years, become rich and return to her homeland. Known as “The Venus Hottentot,” she toured England. Sadly, she never made her fortune nor did she ever return home. Instead she ended her life as an alcoholic prostitute and died at the age of 25. After her death, she was dissected and parts of her were put on display in a Paris museum. Finally, in 2002 her remains were laid to rest in South Africa.
This is a play with music, and some of the music works well. Composed by Michael Wells, the music varies in style from showtunes to African rhythms. Aside from music, Parks utilizes of a number of devices to tell this story. The language she uses exhibits a mix of the formality of the 1800s and the slang of modern society. Sadly, Parks’ characters feel underdeveloped. She also employs a number of theatrical styles to communicate this tale. This mixing of styles could result in a rather interesting piece. Instead, the show feels chaotic and disjointed.
Directed by Eve Munson, the show does grab one’s attention and the cast gives a very energetic performance. However, their robust performances do not make up for the fact that the first act feels very long. Chinasa Ogbuagu is quite good as Venus. She displays grace and intelligence in her portrayal. KenYatta Rogers plays her lover, the Baron Docteur. He manages to be sympathetic even when the character is at his worst. Barbara Pinolini is especially effective in her portrayal of three different roles. She is at her best as the manipulative Mother-Showman who profits off of Venus’ popularity.
James Kronzer’s set reminds one of the inside of a circus tent. The set also holds a large projection screen, which would be a good addition to the set if it wasn’t for the fact that set pieces on either side cast a shadow on it. Some of the costumes by Vasilija Zivanic are reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil. For the character of Venus, Zivanic has created African garb and a flesh colored leotard that is successful in portraying the character’s nakedness.
Those who have seen Topdog/Underdog will see flashes of Parks’ style in Venus. This is no Topdog/Underdog, but it does give one an opportunity to see the development of this writer’s talent. Venus runs at Olney Theatre Center through September 26th.
Olney Theatre Center
Miss Sartje Baartman, A.K.A. The Girl, later The Venus Hottentot: