The line between witness and voyeur in a theater audience can be razor-thin. Sometimes it's nonexistent. From a conveniently darkened area we look, apparently unobserved, into a room where unstable lives are simulated. The façade of a "fourth wall" is usually erected to enhance this effect. And though our seats are generally situated literally above the action, this does not automatically confer to us the higher moral ground. For out here in the audience, don't we have not one dirty little secret, but two?
Isn't this the first: We really like to watch?
Isn't the second that we truly don't want to get involved?
That's ultimately what we pay for when we buy our ticket, right? Passion, yes--but by proxy? The privilege of seeing beautiful people appear to encounter difficulties, seem to fall in love (or lust) with one another, or face ersatz dangers, no more than several feet away?
And isn't that remove, that distance just as important as the simulacrum itself? Our mutual agreement as audience to be placed not in a situation, but near it? And not even the situation itself, but its staged facsimile? What of the mutual consent between viewers and production that no long-term emotional, financial or sexual relationship is engaged--though we might insist it be acted out on stage?
Finally, what of the economic fact that we're engaging in a rental here?
For we rent this seat; we rent these people. We do this whenever we go to theater, for the purpose of embodying--what? A negative or positive fantasy? A favored dream or nightmare? Deeply held beliefs or desires about other cultures and our own?
The terms of the lease are curious: We pay money in order to leave, at any point, without further obligation. We may, but do not have to, care about the people in our presence. The continued well-being of the performers--the ultimate and personal physical, psychological and economic consequences of their acts--is their lookout, not ours. The moment they do not sufficiently amuse, titillate, horrify or enthrall, we walk. We are specifically not our actors' keeper.
What kind of relationship is that? What does it make of us in the audience, and of the people on the stage?
The one--and possibly only--success of Suzan-Lori Parks' controversial play Venus is how it gets at this disconnect between performer and audience, and how it mines the darker motives that put us in the theater in the first place. Her subject is Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman taken from the British Cape Colonies (now South Africa) and exhibited in freak shows in England and France as "The Venus Hottentot" between 1810 and her death in 1815.
Baartman's entertainment--and economic--value to European audiences (and self-styled impresarios who sold her among themselves) centered on her two largest physical attributes: big buttocks and enlarged genitalia. A caged Baartman would be presented in a fake headdress and little more, for audiences to circle, gawk at--and fondle. She was offered as the embodiment of racist myth: the African woman as subhuman but still sexually desirable; or, as one of Parks' characters puts it, "the lowest link in God's great chain of being."
Her apparent impact on the culture of the time was significant. Baartman was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles; she was the subject of popular songs and a French comic opera. Her image still figures into Western preconceptions of "the wild" and "the native" in Africa.
Clearly, the story of her commodification and imprisonment is a shameful one. Venus exposes the barbarity, not of Baartman, but the European culture that objectified her body as mass entertainment--and a rationale for colonialism--before abandoning her to poverty and an early death.
But since it takes far less than 2 1/2 hours to do this, Venus unfortunately veers into the realm of harangue long before the end of act two. By then, the composition and structure of Parks' script have gone from historical drama to a grad school presentation gone wrong.
Begin with needless, pointless repetitions that begin, ominously enough, at the show's opening. Cast members recite the cast of characters--and then do so again. Our first hint that the Negro Resurrectionist's character is special comes when his name is repeated four times. Only the title character receives more mentions at the start.
As the show proceeds, cast members gravely keep reminding us the year was 1810. And that the Venus Hottentot is dead. And that they hate to let us down.
And here's a bit of doggerel verse: "My love for you, My Love, is artificial / Fabricated much like this epistle." (Memorize it now, so you can say it along with the actors--during the six times it's recapped through the show.)
Nor is it any actor's fault that this deathless phrase winds up repeated five times: "Town R! Town U! Town E! Town Q! Town 58! Town 64! Town 85! Town 99!"
Where the challenge of coming up with new dialogue proves too great, Parks crafts a scene consisting entirely of descending numbers between 31 and 14, apparently because she's numbered her scenes in reverse order. For some reason. Even though the action (and staged footnotes) move more or less chronologically after the opening overture.
When that loses interest, she "writes" this completely silent scene, in which no action or stage business is necessary, instead: "The Venus / The Baron Doctor / The Venus / The Baron Doctor / The Venus / The Baron Doctor / The Venus / The Baron Doctor / The Venus." Its title (also repeated, through the show): "A Scene of Love."
These and devices of similar literary merit are used to connect cut-and-pasted passages from an old melodrama, a newspaper advertisement from the period, popular songs, dictionary definitions, excerpts from legal proceedings and other "historical extracts."
The most prominent among these is an autopsy report and a similar scientific presentation of the measurements of Baartman's dismembered body. The most bizarre is an apparently impromptu essay on the history of chocolate, a theatrical non sequitur wedged in just before play's end. O f course, recent playwrights like Moises Kaufman have effectively incorporated historical documents into biographical works for stage. But where such extracts served to reinforce the strong sense of character at the center of a work like Gross Indecencies: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, here they tend to ironically underline what's missing in the character at the center of Venus: just about everything. For despite the dozens of measurements offered up as data, we ultimately find out next to nothing about the person herself. The only indication we have of her individual character--besides her misery and victimization--comes in a late scene in which she all too briefly fantasizes what a life of luxury would be like.
Before that, all we know about her is that she wanted to make money and retire rich. And that she wanted to be loved.
Neither trait can be said to differentiate her from several billion other humans.
Can this really be all the playwright sees into her central character?
In rubbing our noses in the historical shame, doesn't Parks actually leave Baartman the shell of a soul that European culture initially made her out to be?
Was she really just a conveniently simple, unsophisticated rube trapped in a carny world? A sucker who was swindled first by procurers in South Africa and England, and then by a ghoul of an anatomist who "loved" and kept her--so he could get possession of her bones after her death?
Isn't the over-reliance here on historical effluvia and numbers, numbers, numbers intended to hide the limits of a playwright's imagination, and her artistic inability to fill in the missing gaps? Does Venus ultimately ever focus on the title character--as opposed to the con games that cost her her life?
Is this a disservice to Baartman? If so, how does it compare to those visited upon her two centuries ago?
Since playwrights are usually more committed to a script than even its actors are, it's perplexing to see a show where it seems the opposite is true. If a nearly nude Barbette Hunter in the title role dies each night for the sins of the playwright, Kevin Poole turns in career-high work as well, particularly in the role of The Baron Docteur. But Lynne Guglielmi seems miscast as the cynical Mother-Showman and Grade-School Chum. Credit Thaddeus Edwards with another supporting step forward as an evilly gleeful host, The Negro Resurrectionist, and note strong supporting work from Jessenia Golden, Ricco Baker, Jackie Marriott and Tim Overcash in excerpts from the melodrama For the Love of the Venus.
Glen Matthews deftly uses Miyuki Su's cunning set to cage the audience in with Baartman in the opening moments. Under his direction, an ensemble of actors and students from Shaw University imaginatively represent the various denizens of Baartman's freak show world. Later, Matthews also admirably finishes Parks' uncompleted script, particularly in the above-named "Scene of Love."
Thomas Mauney's midway lights place us under the big top, but the constant calliope music becomes an irritant and a distraction: presumably another version of the repetition that elsewhere haunts this show.
Now here's a show to savor: A Moon for the Misbegotten at Deep Dish Theater. Still, I have to question some of the guiltier pleasures on stage. Director Tony Lea gets a surprisingly intimate, interior feel from Tom Marriott's performance as Phil, the prickly patriarch of the Hogan clan. Bravo for the imaginative and unexpected choice. But before this revelation sweeps us off our collective feet--as Marriott loves to do--isn't there still just a bit too much charm in the curmudgeon's mix? Didn't Phil inspire real terror in his leaving son, Mike? Did Eugene O'Neill really see him as this, well, light? As for Helen Hagan in the landmark role of Josie, two words seem appropriate: welcome back. The region's secret weapon in domestic drama in the 1990s returns under a bellweather here, directed again with considerable discretion by Lea. The rawness of her character's emotional needs recalls a cello line from Bartok in this performance, a part not played so much as sliced into, remorselessly.
By comparison, the buds that we expected to see slowly and awfully open on James Tyrone's metaphorical funeral wreath stayed too closed during the concluding acts on Friday night. Actor John Allore has done promising work in the recent past. Still, the audience must clearly see what changes Josie's mind--what removes the hopes of the evening's beginning and convinces her she's holding a dead man in O'Neill's rosy dawn.
Byron Woods can be reached at email@example.com.