note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
I attended Boston University’s first two productions of the 2002-2003 school year and they were most excellent: Suzan-Lori Parks’ VENUS and Patrick Marber’s DEALER’S CHOICE (both will have closed by the time you read this). Two (faculty?) directors --- Eve Muson and Douglas Mercer --- brought out the best and then some in their student casts; indeed, both productions were worthy enough to be played in off-Broadway houses; I say off-Broadway only because the youth of these actors would automatically delegate their productions to the “experimental” level. Unlike Zeitgeist’s BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE, poorly attended despite its own excellence (I’ll be banging THAT drum for quite some time), VENUS and DEALER’S CHOICE were packed on the nights I went, mostly by students. Whether they had to attend as a class assignment or not doesn’t matter --- they were treated to some exciting theatre --- not movies, TV or music videos --- real, live THEATRE, and I hope they enjoyed it and come back for more. I know I will.
Chinasa Ogubuagu … Miss Saartjie Baartman aka The Venus Hottentot
Sean-Michael Hodge-Bowles … The Baron-Docteur
Lauren Hatcher … The Mans Brother / The Mother-Showman / The Grade-School Chum
Baron Vaughn … The Negro Resurrectionist
In terms of sheer theatricality alone, Suzan-Lori Parks’ VENUS was the better of the two productions --- it was certainly the most fascinating, in story and the way that story was told.
VENUS is based on the strange but true tale of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman of the 18th century who entered into a dubious contract with a white entrepreneur to be exhibited in London because of the enormous size of her buttocks (a physical characteristic among women of her tribe); she was promised 12 guineas per year and would be allowed to return home in two years’ time. Practically naked and presented as “The Venus Hottentot”, Saartjie toured England and became a well-known curiosity but never saw her homeland again: she died in Paris at the age of 25; a prostitute and an alcoholic. After her death, Saartjie’s body was dissected; her genitalia and skeleton were preserved and displayed in a Paris museum up until the latter half of the 20th century; only this year, her remains were returned to South Africa where they were buried with dignity. Ms. Parks tells Saartjie’s story as a combination of fairy tale, allegory, circus, vaudeville, commedia dell’arte and Brecht’s alienation theory, with nods to Jean Genet’s THE BLACKS and Bernard Pomerance’s THE ELEPHANT MAN, and blends them all together with sardonic tongue in cheek. Her anger doesn’t leave welts on the audience, but it does make YOU angry about how one race will view, treat and profit from another’s physical type and skin tone. Surrounding Ms. Parks’ Saartjie are the Mans Brother, who promises her the streets of gold but really sells her into slavery; The Mother-Showman, who makes Saartjie the ninth member of her traveling freak show; The Baron-Docteur, an anatomy professor who falls in love with Saartjie despite his wanting --- and waiting --- to dissect her; and The Grade-School-Chum, a Napoleonic friend of the Baron-Docteur, who craftily separates the lovers in the name of science. Overseeing Saartjie’s life is The Negro Resurrectionist --- a Jim Crow dandy in top hat and tails --- who narrates the story, provides the audience with facts and footnotes, and counts backwards the numerous scenes (“Scene Ten!” “Scene Nine!” etc.) The supporting cast (4 men, 4 women) play the inmates of Mother-Showman’s “family”; the characters in “The Venus Hottentot”, a play within the play; and those who come to ogle and poke at the Venus in her cage.
If all of the above sounds incredibly rich, exotic and fascinating, it is and was. Ms. Muson staged her production in the black box of the Boston University Theatre in “boulevard” set-up; that is, the audience sat in rows on either side of the main floor, creating a long, wide playing area for the actors that ran in from the hallway, onto on the main floor where most of the action took place, and up onto the tiny proscenium stage where “The Hottentot Venus” was performed. I have not been able to locate a copy of Ms. Parks’ script; whether the script inspired Ms. Muson to flights of brilliance or Ms. Parks wrote a brilliant script and Ms. Muson simply staged it as written doesn’t matter --- here was a true marriage of playwright and director. While Mitchell Sellers turned his wonderful UNDER MILK WOOD (Ablaze Theatre Initiative) into a gentle ballet, Ms. Muson’s VENUS was a shifting kaleidoscope of sparking images and sounds (I came out feeling exhilarated, not depressed). After seeing Mr. Sellers and Ms. Muson’s productions performed in arena style, up close and personal, I wonder if could this be the way to bring Theatre back into the theatre? It sounds revolutionary, but it’s really Elizabethan --- Elizabethan and all of the history of Western theatre that preceded it, when actors performed in bare settings (usually outdoors) and the action flowed and audiences had to use their imaginations. For example, to have Ms. Parks’ Saartjie scrubbing the floor in the center of the playing area, to hear the sound of her brush upon stone --- what more do you need to conjure up that particular scene?
And images. What glorious images studded this VENUS! First off, an actress with a generous behind --- real or padded --- was NOT cast in the title role; Chinasa Ogubuagu’s Saartjie had the actress’ own conventional shape and wore a flesh-colored body stocking to simulate nudity (I’ll assume Ms. Parks insisted on this type of casting so that the audience would always see Saartjie as a human being and not giggle and point alongside the onstage gawkers --- contemporary engravings of the real Saartjie were flashed upon two moveable screens to help fill in the audience’s imagination. Other unforgettable images: Saartjie’s anal rape by the Mans Brother, staged as a quick, awkward struggle followed by a close --- too close --- embrace from behind; ‘The Eight Human Wonders’, first glimpsed as silhouettes through the screens and then entering the arena from out of Mother-Showman’s towering hoop skirt; the never-ending hands reaching between the bars of Saartjie’s cage to touch her all over; “The Venus Hottentot” play staged in a deliberately shallow depth of field to suggest a Regency marionette show; the breathtaking recapitulation of Act One at the start of Act Two where bodies and screens spun through time and space; Saartjie’s trial on moral grounds, presided over by an octet of judges part-Greek chorus, part-Gilbert and Sullivan; the grueling tour through England suggested by the cast rotating Saartjie’s cage clockwise while the captive within numbly turned counter; French anatomists mercilessly snapping measuring tapes about Saartjie’s person as if she were already stuffed and mounted; Saartjie’s death in a filthy prison cell; and --- most chilling --- the Baron-Docteur at his podium, raising a handkerchief to reveal Saartjie’s genitals preserved in a glass jar. And considering that all of the above was performed by college students --- still wet or green --- I am still blinking in amazement at Ms. Muson’s achievement. Her lucky young actors, to have such a director to guide them!
I had seen three of VENUS’s actors in last year’s production of THE TEMPEST, which I did not take kindly to, to put it mildly. Chinasa Ogubuagu and Baron Vaughn were the only ones who earned and deserved their laughs as the lusty, drunken Stephano and the wiry (and wired) Trinculo; it was good to see them both show their dramatic side in such a worthwhile vehicle. Ms. Ogubuagu scaled down her comic persona to create an unforgettable Saartjie: warm and trusting, part-child, part-domesticated animal, blessed with the life spark to keep her going through her Venus-dom, even though she could only spiral downwards (Ms. Parks was wise in balancing Saartjie’s character: when Saartjie has a chance to return home, she chooses to stay in Paris because to return to her land in poverty would be a disgrace in her people’s eyes). Mr. Vaughn was a riveting Master of Ceremonies, lean as a blade and just as cutting (though this was not listed in the program, Mr. Vaughn also played the body snatcher-turned-jailer, bribed to dig up the dying Saartjie as soon as she is buried). Lauren Hatcher was last year’s frizzy-haired, screechy Caliban; I confess I did not recognize her in her three VENUS roles --- amazing how an actor can be boxed in by one director and set free by another, no? Ms. Hatcher still retains her bright, piercing voice which I hope Time will mellow out and she has the beginnings of a stage personality, suitable for both comedy and drama (as the Mans Brother, Ms. Hatcher pulled off the neat trick of evoking male, not female, arrogance). Sean-Michael Hodge-Bowles, a black actor, played the Baron-Docteur, made compelling by underscoring his dilemma between heart and profession; I wonder if Ms. Parks requested this racial casting for dramatic irony, or if this was Ms. Muson’s decision….? The supporting ensemble was simply amazing, each of them displaying wit and agility and a number of dialects and acting styles; let me repeat their names once again: Courtney Abbiati, Bob Brasswell, Chrisopher Frontiero, Kimberley Green, Amber Grey, Joe Lanza, Bennett Leak and Kitty Spivey. I hope to see each of them in more prominent roles in upcoming BU productions. (When you think about it, a college theatre department is a bit like a repertory company, where you can see the same actors in a number of roles and watch them grow.)
Ms. Parks has suffered a BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE of her own: her most recent play TOP DOG won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama --- one of the most prestigious awards that can be given to a play --- and yet audiences stayed away; the Broadway production closed after a few months. Why? Because the color of the two actors’ skin was black? To keep the theatre thriving, audiences must get out of the habit of attending shows that only appeal to them or relate to their own lives. A first glance at VENUS may prompt you to say, “Why should I go see a play about a fat-assed black woman?” Because of the play’s humanity, folks; isn’t that enough? Its humanity, and its amazing theatricality. So many of us have forgotten how as children our attention could be held with those magic words, “Once upon a time….”
Vladimir Nabokov once said in his famous lectures on literature that the most important facet of the writer is that he must be an enchanter. Mss. Parks and Muson were enchanters all right --- they took those who attended the few performances of VENUS onto an amazing journey --- without ever leaving that long, narrow black room.
Mugsy … Andrew Sneed
Sweeney … Philip Tarantula
Stephen … Brandon Murphy
Frankie … Rod Jerome Brady
Carl … Paul V. Cortez
Ash … Michael Cohen
On the other side of town, I caught BU’s equally impressive production of a British play, DEALER’S CHOICE, by one Patrick Marber. I know nothing about Mr. Marber, though I suspect Mr. Marber knows about David Mamet, the touchstone for today’s playwrights on How to Create a Red-Blooded Drama. I never cared for Mr. Mamet as a playwright --- as I once wrote, all that male armor soon wearies me --- and I care even less for his imitators; to his credit, Mr. Marber keeps the ‘fucks’ to a minimum and shows far more substance than Mr. Mamet, who seems content to dazzle us with his verbal riffs.
DEALER’S CHOICE is set in a London restaurant: Act One is preparation for the weekly Sunday poker game held in its basement; Act Two is the game itself. Sitting round the table are Stephen, the restaurant owner; Carl, his son, a well-meaning lad but forever in gambling debts; Mugsy, a not-too-bright waiter who, with Carl, wants to convert a public restroom into his own restaurant (much toilet humor here --- ah, those Brits!); Sweeney, a chef, divorced father and another compulsive gambler; Frankie, a waiter who is THIS CLOSE to saving enough to make tracks for Las Vegas; and Ash, a shadowy character who has come to collect from Carl in order to pay off his own debts. The poker game itself is fascinating with the players’ dreams and fortunes rising or falling on the turn of a card, and Mr. Marber’s dialogue really zings --- it’s as a drama that DEALER’S CHOICE stumbles, as does Mr. Mamet’s GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Like his mentor, Mr. Marber aims for an ensemble piece and gives each of his characters a turn to show humor, rage, pathos --- but whose play is it, and where is it going? After all the fireworks, it boils down to Stephen, the soft-hearted tyrant who doles out cash like sweets (that must be some restaurant!), and Carl, who wants to make it on his own even if it means forever failing. In this context, I prefer sentiment over someone getting his brains blown out --- which is what I expected --- and so I thank you, Mr. Marber.
And my thanks to DEALER’S CHOICE’s director and actors as well! Douglas Mercer had cast six wonderful instruments and brought out all of Mr. Marber’s roughhouse and gaiety yet never let the evening turn to mere noise or caricature. It was a genuine pleasure seeing Andrew Sneed (Mugsy) and Brandon Murphy (Stephen) again --- they were the two halves of Prospero in the above-mentioned TEMPEST, where Mr. Sneed stomped and bellowed and Mr. Murphy had little voice to speak of (a bad cold?). Here, they made marvelous amends --- Mr. Sneed was better tempered (in both senses of the word) and made a loveable dimwit, and Mr. Murphy impressed me with his weary, compassionate Stephen, effortlessly filling the stage with his sonorous voice (NOW may I please hear his Prospero?). There wasn’t a weak link among the rest of the ensemble, though I give an extra nod to Phillip Taratula’s Stephen (alarming in his self-hatred when he stakes and loses all) and Michael Cohen’s Ash, flickering from agreeable to menacing and twice becoming truly frightening despite his unassuming appearance.
The program listed no set designer for this bare-bones production --- yet, Act Two (the Poker Game) was one of the most visually arresting settings I’ve seen this year: one round table with a green tablecloth, six chairs, a few cardboard boxes scattered about for atmosphere --- and all lit by one overhanging light. Beautiful --- O Boston theatres, established or just starting out, you can learn so much from college productions!
Boston University is offering over a dozen more productions between now and April --- in its Main Stage, Studio or TheatreLab --- and if they turn out to be as satisfying as its VENUS and DEALER’S CHOICE, then a night out at BU could prove to be just the ticket --- and you needn’t be a relative or friend of the actors, either.