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Minneapolis by Ed Huyck

Venus, House of Blue Leaves and Psycho Beach Party

Frank Theatre, Venus

Suzan-Lori Parks writes difficult plays. Her works dance to the rhythm of their own drummer. Whether or not the audience can follow the beat is largely up to the theater willing to tackle her works. Frank Theatre, a long-standing small and daring company, isn’t afraid. In 2004, they tackled Parks’ Fucking A with some success. Now, they’ve undertaken Venus with compelling, if mixed, results.

The show uses the true story of a South African woman who was brought to England in the early part of the 19th century and displayed as the “Venus Hottentot,” with the main attraction being her large posterior. She lived in Europe for five years before dying. For decades after this, her skeleton was displayed as a sort of scientific side-show curiosity before finally being put to rest in her native land.

If that were the only message of Parks’ script and the Frank production – exploitation is bad! – I don’t think this play would have haunted as it has over the last week. Parks’ script is a mess – overlong, hammering on its main points over and over again – but contains such brilliant moments that it can’t be ignored. The hard working people at Frank take this messy play and tame it somewhat, but also realize that the messiness contains much of what makes the show compelling.

The action plays out on a side-show like stage packed with scientific debris, the focus being a dais in the center that serves as Venus’ cage and, later, examination table.

Sha Cage commands the stage as Venus. Wearing a body suit to represent her character’s unique shape, Cage quickly becomes Venus. It’s a complex character – one that is exploited throughout, but also willing to use that exploitation to her own ends. She interacts mainly with two actors. Maria Asp plays the various exploiters who take her from Africa to England and, finally, to and from her grave. Patrick Bailey plays a doctor who “purchases” Venus as an object of scientific study, and eventually of something resembling love. Both take on their unlikable characters with full vigor.

The balance of the cast comments on Venus’ situation, either as the eight-actor chorus, the participants in occasional play-within-a-play sequences, or as the Negro Resurrectionist (Dana Munson) who uses historical documents to underscore Venus’ exploitation.

We should commend Frank Artistic Director (and Venus director) Wendy Fox for taking on the show. Venus is overlong, sometimes obtuse simply to be obtuse and hammers away at its core message with all the subtly of a steel chair to the head, but it also features a striking central performance, a deeper message about surviving exploitation and a string of visuals that will haunt the viewer long after the show has ended.

Frank Theatre’s Venus runs through April 23, 2006 at the Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art (1st floor), 250 Third Avenue North, Minneapolis. For tickets and more information, call (612) 724 3760 or visit www.franktheatre.org.


Jungle Theater, House of Blue Leaves

John Gaure’s messy masterpiece has long been a favorite of the Jungle Theater, and the company revisits it for a third time as part of its 15th anniversary season. Those who attended past productions will recognize the staging (created by director John Donahue), the costumes, other parts of the production and a number of the actors. Yet the play offers such a bevy of great moments, interesting characters and hard lessons about life that numerous visits don’t hurt it at all.

Set on a chilly October day in 1965 when the Pope visited New York, the play centers on Artie Shaughnessy, a middle-aged man who dreams of being a great songwriter, but who feels trapped by his life – working for the zoo and living in an apartment in Queens. His girlfriend Bunny wants him to escape to sunny California where his wartime buddy Billy is a successful movie producer, but Artie is tied to Queens by his wife, the depressed and somewhat mad Bananas.

All of this sets up a string of events that includes: a plot to kill the Pope, a deaf starlet trying to escape the confines of the apartment and a trio of nuns who invade the home in the second act. By the end, the show is littered with more corpses than Hamlet. And amazingly enough, it’s all very funny and, despite the madcap shenanigans, quite touching.

Donahue’s set – which not only evokes the time, but also looks and feels like the home of someone at a dead end – is as much a character as the actors. The cast is led by Jungle founder Bain Boehlke as Artie, who delights in playing the crazed and delusional old man. The balance of the cast is also strong, especially Wendy Lehr as Artie’s wife.

The House of Blue Leaves ends with darkness for many of the characters, but features such a compelling journey that the viewer is left with a sense that we may all be able to escape our personal Queens.

The House of Blue Leaves runs through May 21 at the Jungle Theatre, 2951 Lyndale Ave., Minneapolis. For information, call 612-822-7063 or visit www.jungletheater.com.


Mechanical Division, Psycho Beach Party

Finally, we come to a show that could use a bit more bite. Charles Busch’s beach movie parody never manages to fly, despite some good characters, performers and moments. The script lacks much in the way of focus, so the laughs remain scattered and the promised madness in the sand never really comes together.

We follow a bunch of seemingly cardboard cutout characters during a sun-soaked summer on a California beach. But there’s plenty lurking beneath the seemingly simple desires of getting girls (the guys), getting guys (some of the girls) and learning how to surf. The last is the dream of forceful teenageer Chicklet. Yet her simple desire hides deeper issues. It soon becomes clear that Chicklet suffers from some kind of psychosis, which manifests itself in multiple personalities. Her friends react in different ways to her changing personality, seemingly more focused on the big luau that’s coming up with the first full moon.

Nice set up, but it doesn’t travel much further than that. Part of the problem is that the form Busch parodies – the early 1960s beach movie – is best known to most modern viewers from the last round of beach movie parodies from the 1980s. There are some nice touches in the production – the only surf scene takes place during a blackout, for example – but they come few and far between.

The performers try their best, though they’ve been saddled with characters that are supposed to be one or two-dimensional. Amber Maser has plenty of fun as the multiple parts of Chicklet, while confused psychology student/surf bum Star Kat gives Todd Karner some space for humor behind his character’s dumb struck expression.

No matter how hard the actors try, there just isn’t enough meat on this show’s bones.

Psycho Beach Party runs through April 22 at the 4th Street Theater, St. Paul. For information and tickets, call 612-226-4941 or visit www.mechanicaldivision.com.


- Ed Huyck



Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area