Venus

By Suzan-Lori ParksVenus

Directed by Jess McLeod

As part of the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Next Up productions

At the Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre

Ambitious new work fictionalizes the life of the Hottentot Venus

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and director Jess McLeod has presented a stylist theatrical appealing drama – Venus – depicting the loves and adventures of Saartjie Baartman (1790-1815) know as the Hottentot Venus due to her voluptuousness rear end. Utilizing the detailed set (design by Scott Davis) that aptly depicts a 19th Century museum workspace, Venus fictionalizes the adventures of  Saartjie Baartman who traveled from South Africa to England in search of fame and fortune.

venus by suzan-lori parks

She became a sideshow attraction mainly due to her “biggest bottom in the world.” While Mildred Marie Langfrod is terrific as Venus, thankfully she doesn’t exhibit the large backside of Venus.  This work is a flashback drama moving from the present to that time (1810) when Venus first arrived in London. The Negro Resurrectionist (Michael Pogue)  is the modern day investigator searching for the truths about Saartie.  With the aid of two white dressed and white faced Chorus members – John Stokvis and Ann Sonneville, Venus unfolds as theatrically interesting attempt to humanize and dispel the myths concerning Venus’ unique body.

venus by suzan-lori parks

This 2 hour, 30 minute show fictionalizes Venus’ romp from London to Paris with gender-bending casting (Carolyn Hoerdann) playing a couple of men and a commentator announcing each scene.  These devices and the slick set design gave the work an over-produced effect. We see Venus as a exploited soul duped by her handlers until she ends up in the hands of the French doctor Baron Docteur (Jeff Parker) -who falls in love with the Hottentot beauty. The Baron also wants to research and measure every unique physical attribute of Saartie. While playwright Parks fictionalizes Saartie’s life choosing to emphasize her intelligence, acumen for language, and her sexuality. We empathize with her and we feel her pain as she is rendered ore of a freak than a person.

With a mixture of vaudeville, spectacle and unique staging, Venus adds humor and surprises to the mix that makes Venus’ story interesting. The show could use a cut of about 15  minutes but Lanfgord and Parker keep us engaged throughout.

Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: June 11, 2011

For full show information, go to the Venus page at TheatreinChicago.

At Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, call 312-335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org, tickets $20, in repertory with Animals Out of Paper & Where We’re Born, running time is 2 hours, 30 minutes, through June 19, 2011