Steppenwolf Theatre presents
Reviewed by Katy Walsh
A flashlight beams in the darkness. The wind whistles outside. Odd characters chant in repetition: 'I regret to inform you the Venus Hottentrot is dead. There won't be a show tonight.' And so the play begins... at the end. Steppenwolf Theatre, in collaboration with Northwestern University MFA's programs, presents NEXT UP. The theatrical project showcases direction and design of NU graduates performed by professional actors. VENUS is one of three plays in repertory. It's 1810. An African woman is bamboozled into leaving her country with promises of riches. She's sold as a two-bit sideshow freak to a traveling circus. Her unusual feature is a large booty. People come to stare, poke and spank her plump, rump novelty. She is caged and beaten by the owner. Requesting her rightful celebrity status percentage, better food and her own room, Venus is denied. She has no negotiating leverage, exit plan or human rights. She is trapped! When an infatuated doctor buys her freedom, life seems to shift for the good. He says he loves her and gives her chocolate. What could go wrong? VENUS is a whimsical tale that surprises with powerful big ass substance.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks pens a tale based on the real life of Venus Hottentot, Saartje Baartman. Parks uses repeated poetic verse and farcical humor to soften the subjugation history lesson. Director Jesse McLeod paces the show tight with a lyrical tone. McLeod uses the incredibly talented ensemble in a swirl of jumbled scenes of before and after, staged and unstaged, imagined and real. Michael Pogue makes frequent scene and footnote announcements giving organization and information to the amazing spectacle. Pogue charms as an outsider-insider protector of Venus. Mildred Marie Langford (Venus) is heartbreaking as the provocative victim. Langford meets adversity with strong but vulnerable adaptability. Carolyn Hoerdemann and Ann Sonneville both have outstanding interspersed moments of pure hilarity.
The set designed by Scott Davis is an academic plethora of bottled specimens and abandoned boxes of files. Skeletons, table, fainting sofa are effectively cluttered into the whirling spectacle. Costume designer Emily Tarleton adds to the dynamic visual with unique wardrobe choices. Tarleton dresses the chorus in white period costumes, make-up and wigs. It allows the pair to don a hat or glasses to morph into a different character. She undresses Venus with some titillating costume choices: a bodysuit with feathers and buxom corset. To her credit, Langford seems unintimidated by the revealing attire. Tarleton goes bold adding multiple textures and colors to the imagery. I especially loved the contrasting plush robe with feather trim on the circus barker. Despite the oppressive subject matter, the vibrant show has a strong playful vibe.
I regret to inform you this VENUS is short-lived. There won't be a show for many more nights. Get a ticket to the fanny-tastic extravaganza!
At Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted
Written by Suzab-Lori Parks
Directed by Jess McLeod
Wednesday, June 15th at 8pm
Saturday, June 18th at 8pm
Sunday, June 19th at 2pm
Production photography courtesy of Michael Brosilow