The intersection of race and sex, erupting from the deepest fissures in our history, is so white-hot that to approach it is to be burned. Audiences will thus be duly singed by Frank Theatre's production of Suzan-Lori Parks's Venus, a fearless headlong rush at a play awash in brutality, disgust, and despair.
Wendy Knox directs the adapted history of Saartjie Baartman (Shá Cage), a South African washerwoman exported to Victorian London for an ostensible dancing gig. Instead she is featured in freak shows, alongside a bearded lady and a man with a penis sprouting from his forehead. Baartman becomes the "Venus Hottentot," and appears in a cage for audiences astounded by her outsized backside.
Things are bleak and nasty, and Parks intensifies the ambiguity by motivating her humiliated Venus with base material dreams. The role is an astonishing blend of venality, defiance, and degradation, and the struggle is apparent in Cage's gutsy work. A dynamic and elemental performer, Cage at first spits out her lines, as though protesting the very premise that has landed her onstage. Later, she softens her Venus with a girlish openness that, in its context, is equally disturbing.
The production is a freaky feast of its own. Joel Sass's set delivers a sumptuously creepy array of freak-show imagery and taxidermy curios, with a smaller mobile stage hosting selected scenes. Kathy Kohl's costume design underlines the same themes: Its color and invention animate the outrageously outré chorus that punctuates much of the action.
Parks (like Knox, I suspect) does not place audience comfort particularly high on her list of priorities. She employs repetitive dialogue, anachronisms, and shock tactics to hurl one psychic hand grenade after another. Maria Asp portrays a series of three fairly interchangeable, mendaciously sleazy characters, for instance, who successively debase Venus and actively worsen her lot until death. Standing in a cage, subject to gawking and taunting for her "fat ass" and her status as the "missing link," Venus next comes in for kicking by the Mother-Showman (Asp). Ultimately, she is sold off to the salacious Baron-Docteur (Patrick Bailey).
Here, Parks ratchets up the discomfort another level. The Docteur wants to jump Venus's bones in more ways than one--he hopes to make his name as a researcher by publishing a study of her anatomy and skeleton after her death. Bailey is steady and assured as this devil who genuinely loves Venus but can't shake his bedrock view of her as a being of a lesser order. In heartbreaking pillow talk on a vertical bed, Cage eats chocolates and repeatedly begs, "Love me?" while the scene drives home the point that her physiognomy excludes her from human consideration in the Europe of her time.
But the fact that this play takes place in 19th-century Europe is of secondary consideration. Parks's stomping grounds are the backwoods of mythic history, the ugliness in the mirror of human experience. This regional premiere of a 10-year-old play is Frank's third production of Parks's work, and the two theater artists seem uniquely suited to one another. Knox's strength as a director is to meld restless intellectualism with heedless faith in the power of uncensored emotion. This show captures Parks's sometimes-precious wordiness (Dana Munson adeptly delivers long asides to the audience without breaking the show's tempo) with extremes of injustice and repulsion.
One is finally left, after this difficult and enlivening evening, with the feeling that such extremes of emotion and thought forge a deeper connection to the world than more comforting scenarios. Even if one's hands are burned in the process.