My Love for You Is Artificial

When Saartjie Baartman (Zainab Jah), later known as “Venus Hottentot,” first walks onstage, she carries with her a skin-colored body suit.  This repurposed leotard transforms her figure into that of the woman who, because of her large buttocks, was exhibited in freak show attractions in the early nineteenth century.  This is, as far as I can tell, a moment that is absent from Suzan-Lori Parks’ script for Venus, but it is a profound and sobering moment.  By revealing the seams of the production, director Lear deBessonet emphasizes the constructed nature of the character herself, who certainly survives in our memories more as a creature of the European imagination rather than a full-fledged human being.  You could even say that Ms. Jah enters as Saartjie Baartman and, after putting on the suit, emerges as Venus Hottentot. Continue reading “My Love for You Is Artificial”

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You’d Better Learn How to Say the Word Out Loud

A little Jewish play currently running at the Cort Theatre is packed with salacious taboos: mixed dancing, prostitutes, Torah desecration, and even a lesbian kiss.  When Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance made its Broadway debut in 1923, this was enough to warrant a successful conviction for obscenity. Ninety years later and eight blocks north, Paula Vogel’s Indecent follows that play from its first reading in Warsaw to its premiere in New York and beyond.  Because of its subject matter, Asch (Max Gordon Moore), an uncompromising moralist, receives abuse on both sides, from the Jews who accuse him of “pouring petrol on the flames of antisemitism” to the antisemites themselves.  It’s a story as old as Jewish literature and one that gets revived each time a Jewish writer values his or her art over parochial piety.  No doubt a chorus of disappointed parents have been left in their wake. Continue reading “You’d Better Learn How to Say the Word Out Loud”

At Least Mr. Sloane Was Entertained

Sometimes, when you don’t have enough, you do too much.  Thus low-budget productions can feel overstuffed and higher-budgeted ones streamlined.  This is unfortunately the case with Entertaining Mr. Sloane, a wonderful play by Joe Orton that is currently being revived by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.  The stage is flanked by trash bags piled up to the ceiling and littered with books and other knickknacks that serve neither a dramatic nor thematic purpose.  As the first act unrolls, we are introduced to an inexplicable and intrusive sound design, the action scored by a plunking keyboard that sounds like the soundtrack to a ‘seventies porno or perhaps a Casio keyboard preset.  Nothing would have been better. Continue reading “At Least Mr. Sloane Was Entertained”

The Practical Bird

In 1853, Japan remains a peacefully isolated nation, an isolation that is threatened when an expatriate fisherman, Manjiro (Karl Josef Co), returns home to announce the coming of the Americans.  Commodore Matthew Perry follows soon after, with a letter from President Millard Fillmore and plans to open trade between the two countries.  Manjiro and a newly-promoted samurai, Kayama (Steven Eng), are employed to placate the Americans but are unable to stop the inevitable pile-up of European contact and the Westernization of Japan. Continue reading “The Practical Bird”

Human Head Body Like a Goat

In The Flick, Annie Baker rejected virtually every rule of theatrical storytelling to find the drama in the minutiae of everyday life.  Now, those rules are the subject of her new play, The Antipodes, which puts eight writers around a conference table trying to find inspiration for their new project.  They know it will deal with a monster—or something monstrous—and only have one guideline: “No dwarves or elves or trolls.” Continue reading “Human Head Body Like a Goat”

A Jew and an Arab Walk Into Norway…

Clinton, Rabin, and Arafat may have copped the photo-op, but the 1993 Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, or “Oslo I,” was largely due to the work of behind-the-scenes actors.  In a period of only nine months, Terje Rød-Larsen (Jefferson Mays) and his wife, Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle), took advantage of Norwegian neutrality to broker the first official talks between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization.  Beginning with the nebbish economics professor Yair Hirschfeld (Daniel Oreskes) and PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (Anthony Azizi), the pair facilitated a seemingly-miraculous agreement between two peoples who viewed the other as latter-day Nazis. Continue reading “A Jew and an Arab Walk Into Norway…”