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The documentary impulse seems to be ascendant now that so many of its products have brightened Hollywood’s summer. With Michael Moore proving that a properly targeted and promoted political broadside can attract as many viewers as digitally animated robots, a number of other ideologically committed filmmakers re-aimed their projects for cineplexes rather than film festivals, and progressive agitprop became the season’s most unexpectedly successful commercial genre.
Cable news divisions have meanwhile been turning out opportunistic quasi-docs about everything from date rape to terrorism. And theater has gotten into the act, too, though things haven’t been working out quite so happily on area stages that have tried to tweak the documentary form in the last couple of weeks. The Signature Theatre opened One Red Flower, a well-intentioned but resolutely unaffecting musical based—a little too exclusively—on letters written home by soldiers in Vietnam. Though the production is stirringly sung, and makes inventive use of cinematic technique in a sort of double-exposure dissolve in its final moments, the very fact that its text is being excerpted from actual letters makes it seem like a theatrical diorama—inert and lifeless, especially when compared with the similarly epistolary, but fictional, World War I drama Mary’s Wedding, playing across the river at the H Street Playhouse.
With Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus, which tells the true story of the Venus Hottentot— Sartje Baartman, a black South African woman who was cruelly exploited as the star attraction in an 1810 London freak show—the documentary underpinnings are again the primary attraction. And again, they’re not enough. The author employs all sorts of quasi-Brechtian devices to enliven the proceedings, but in plot and concept, Venus is little more than a didactic, dialectical inversion of the The Elephant Man, even to the point of numbering its scenes backward. The parallels are precise: Rather than a white man with a big head, the individual on exhibit for the amusement of condescending 19th-century Londoners is a black woman with a big ass. When a doctor rescues her from the indignities of the freak show, he’s interested not in her mind but in her body—most specifically those supersized buttocks—and his aim is to prove that she’s inferior to the sideshow gawkers, rather than to remind them that they’re dealing with a human being.
I’m guessing it’s less intentional that the language of Venus is pedestrian and repetitive, whereas the dialogue in Elephant Man aspires to eloquence, but credit Parks with sticking to her authorial guns: racializing the sorts of conventional observations about insensitive Victorians that power the earlier play is clearly her point. And if that point is not enough to sustain an audience’s interest for two-and-a-half hours, her black-for-white, ass-for-head, demeaning-for-exalting substitutions do have a certain academic interest. So there’s an aptness of sorts in the Olney Theatre’s producing the show in a manner appropriate to a second-rate collegiate stage. Design elements are not quite sophomoric, but they’re complex without being terribly helpful in illuminating the script (James Kronzer contributes an uncharacteristically ugly maze of stairs, Karin Graybash adds echoes and dissonance to amplified voices, and Vasilija Zivanic color-coordinates the hats on supernumeraries), and performances range from competent to actively annoying. The sense that underclassmen are running amok is unavoidable, almost from the opening moments, when a gyrating, posturing, and only intermittently intelligible chorus sings amateurishly of the Venus Hottentot’s demise. (The scenes go backward, remember.)
Happily, the central roles are played by actors who at least seem to know their way around a stage. Chinasa Ogbuagu is decently affecting as Venus, bedeviled first by Barbara Pinolini’s Mrs. Lovett–like freak-show proprietress, then by KenYatta Rogers’ plausibly anguished doctor, who rescues her with the aim of dissecting her buttocks and genitalia after he’s made more conventional use of them. Narrator Michael Anthony Williams announces scenes (unnecessarily; there are also projected scene titles) and provides authorial footnotes with enough flair that they at least seem mildly interesting. The performers are all working at something of a disadvantage, though, because director Eve Muson has elected to complicate the author’s discussion of racial and gender issues with nontraditional casting: Pinolini plays male characters at times; Rogers, who is black, must utter the line “I’m white” when Venus asks why he can’t have a child with her; and Williams’ narrator is a minstrel figure in blackface.
You can, I suppose, make a case that the director is layering Parks’ dissertation on Victorian attitudes with corresponding contemporary references, but frankly, she’d have better served the script by getting the cast to speak clearly and by bringing them closer to the audience, rather than forever posing them atop staircases and in doorways at the rear of the stage. Abandoning British accents and persuading the chorus to stop flailing during musical numbers might also help—but probably not much.CP