An age-old story of objectification

This tale is true, terrible and 200 years old, but the Frank Theatre isn’t afraid to tackle it

by Tatum Fjerstad

Virginia Burke and Maria Asp attended the University “an eternity ago” and have worked at Frank Theatre for almost as long.

But the passing of time doesn’t make their jobs as actors any easier – especially when the subject material has remained dense.

“Venus,” the latest production at Frank Theatre, fits well with the mission the theater, established in 1989: to present challenging, socially conscious shows.

Those shows have challenged the artists in them as well. But Burke and Asp agreed “Venus” is easily “the most intricately complicated piece” they’ve done.

The play is based on the life of Saartjie Baartman, the famed Hottentot Venus, a woman lured from her home in what is now South Africa to London in 1810 with the false promise of stardom as a dancer. But she was sold into a London freak show and exhibited to those fascinated by her large butt.

She became a scientific oddity until her death in 1815, when her remains were displayed at the Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Men) in Paris until 1974. It wasn’t until 2002 that those remains were returned to South Africa for proper burial.

“Venus” plays with the “concept of ‘the other,’ a disturbing concept that is accepted even today,” said Burke who plays an onlooker, a member of the court and a circus freak.

“It’s about making a buck off someone and climbing over someone’s back,” said Asp, who plays a “scumbag in three different shades of scum.”

“It’s totally disgusting,” Asp said.

This complicated story covers many issues, said Shá Cage, who plays Baartman. “It’s very difficult material.”

Wendy Knox, artistic director at Frank Theatre and director of “Venus,” boasts that their third production by divisive playwright Suzan-Lori Parks might make Frank the theater that has presented the most of her plays in the country.

“Venus” is “typical of Parks,” Cage said. “She doesn’t make it easy. And she shouldn’t because we live in a complicated world.”

Frank Theatre does not have permanent stakes in a theater space, so with each show they search for a new venue.

With the same idea in mind, Frank Theatre shamelessly works on a shoestring budget. It’s part of the challenge.

“Frank doesn’t have a tremendous amount of money, but does have a tremendous amount of heart,” Burke said. “We’re called in to pitch in where you don’t need to at other theaters.”

Burke, for example, is working on 15 wigs to help out the costumer.

Staging “Venus” at Traffic Zone Center for Visual Art has been a welcomed challenge for set designer Joel Sass, who has directed two plays in the theatre department at the University and will direct another and teach a class next spring.

“I’m used to working on smaller budgets,” Sass said. “But with Frank, you have to stretch the penny a bit further because they don’t have a performance space.”

So Sass used the deep spaces with tall ceilings, columns and old wooden floors to his advantage and created a set that resembles an old storage room at a museum, much like where the remains of Venus were kept until the beginning of this century.

Even dramaturge Steve Matuszak, whose job is “to know this text really well,” is helping build sets.

“You gotta rise up and own the play,” Asp said. “And you own the show differently when you cannot just think of yourself; you have to get each other’s back.”