WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
INFO$30; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Dream-like telling of a nightmarish true story.
Although it’s based on a true story that happened in the early 19th century, “Venus” is no period-perfect petticoat affair — because it’s by Suzan-Lori Parks, the most poetically minded of major contemporary American playwrights.
Parks (who won a Pulitzer for “Topdog/Underdog”) clearly did her research into the life of Saartjie Baartman, a woman from the Khoikhoi tribe whose generous physical attributes fascinated white people first in her native South Africa, then in the United Kingdom and France, where she was exhibited in freak shows, and exploited by scientists until her death in 1815.
“Big-bottomed girl,” says one of the men who took her from life as a servant to life as a circus act. “A novelty.”
But Parks is not one for college lectures. As in her 2014 show, “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3),” she opted for a hybrid of fact and fancy in “Venus” — a 1996 play now given a vivid, visually striking revival by the young director Lear deBessonet.
As tragic as the tale is, resilience, humor and love run through the show. Parks’ Baartman — whose stage name was the Venus Hottentot — is no passive victim, especially as portrayed by Zainab Jah, late of “Eclipsed.” While unschooled, this Venus knows what she wants and pursues it, whether it’s with the carnival proprietor, Mother-Showman (Randy Danson) or with the smitten French Baron Docteur (John Ellison Conlee). This helps the show avoid voyeurism, along with the flesh-colored padded suit Jah puts on in front of the audience at the start, to suggest the character’s nakedness while on display at the circus.
Using extreme stylization, Parks creates a distance from the story’s fundamental sadness, and the show never devolves into a treaty on racism and colonialism. Even when the narrator/ringmaster (Kevin Mambo) inserts “footnotes” and “historical extracts” into the story, “Venus” has a surprisingly light touch.
Besides Jah, who imbues her character with a sensitive balance of pathos and dignity, the production benefits from an excellent ensemble playing other members of the freak show (a two-headed woman, a cyclops), the actors in a fancy play-within-the-play and French anatomists coldly measuring Venus’ proportions. They change with quicksilver speed, their brightly colored costumes (designed by Emilio Sosa) suggesting, as does the play, that our world is too complicated for black and white.