Venus’ history made more fun

Lincoln Performance Hall
Feb. 26-28, March 1
8 p.m.
$7 students
$9 general ad.
Pinkish-silver, pale yellow, lime green and cobalt blue: These are just the colors of the stage. The play “Venus” itself often rallies forth as even more rich than the colorful set and vibrantly-colored costuming. Fortunately, every character in the Portland State theater department’s new play proves him or herself to be as rich as their surroundings.

An innocent playgoer can often become easily confused by the multiple roles each actor plays in this production, but numerous references back to the handy program will set them straight. Though the costuming being completely different between each successively played character would have also been incredibly helpful, limited budgets frequently call for more willing suspension of disbelief.

This story of Venus Hottentot is based on pieces of historical fact. Written by Suzan Lori Parks and directed by Karin Magaldi, the play explains that, in the early 1800s, a woman named Saartje Baartman was taken from Africa to England and put on display to be poked and prodded at by the English. Promised to earn “a mint,” she quickly signed away two years of her life for 50 percent of the profits.

Arriving in England, where “the streets are paved with gold,” she discovered otherwise, led quickly to her conclusions by a group of eight “human wonders.” This sideshow act never failed to be hilarious, and continually reappeared throughout the play as a chorus of constantly changing characters.

“Venus” then leads the audience through the renaming of Baartman to Venus Hottentot, and her sad life. Luckily, the actors play their parts with wonderfully comical spins and “Venus” only rarely proves to be depressing. Mirriam Williams plays Venus nobly, though often a bit too quietly. Meekness of her character caused her to be easily forgotten in group scenes. Fortunately, however, she fascinates the audience with her character’s openness and intelligence in a scene in which she speaks of the history of chocolate. One wishes there were more opportunities to see Williams perform alone on stage, or at least in monologue or soliloquy, as she is most in her element here.

The most enthralling actor, Randall Robin Reece, plays three characters, most notably The Mother-Showman. In full drag reminiscent of Juliet from Shakespeare’s time, Reece manages to not only be loud and obnoxious in an entertaining way, but also to pull off a female character while mutton-chop sideburns poke out from underneath his auburn beehive.

Although Reece maintains a strong, well-projected voice and solid understanding of all his characters, The Mother-Showman remains his most boisterous, over-the-top and fun character. One hesitates to say he makes a better woman than a man, but in “Venus,” his comical portrayal of his female character wishing for retirement keeps his viewers laughing more often than anyone else in the play can claim. Even the man in a tutu and the wormlike, armless woman in the chorus do not bring in as many laughs as Reece.

Jayson Kochan also played quite an entertaining role as the Baron Docteur, among other things. His engaging English accent and physical mannerisms prohibit audience members from looking anywhere else when he is moving his slippery, red-gloved hands or walking around in his Willy Wonka-esque outfit.

He prevents anyone from tuning out his smooth, enchanting voice. Watch out if you need to leave during intermission, he speaks on stage almost the entire time, and one is reluctant to leave his lecture, though he mostly just uses medical terminology. If only all doctors had English accents.

Wesley Johnson introduces many scenes and gives out handy historical information. He flip-flops from charismatic to a bit dull in the beginning of “Venus.” As the show progresses, however, Johnson finds his footing and exhibits enough charisma for the audience to stay dedicated to his character’s plight. He also throws in a touch of humor here and there concerning the idiotic double standards racial intolerance fosters, as he is the only other African-American in the cast.

The originality of this production of “Venus” pleasantly surprised this reviewer, who has avoided PSU’s theater adventures since the disastrous production of “Othello” in a past season. Hope has been restored that talent does indeed lie within the walls of Lincoln Hall’s acting classrooms!

For a good laugh and a social comment on race, class, gender and sexuality outside of your University Studies classes, go see “Venus.” You won’t be sorry, especially with that great student discount.