There are a lot of things wrong with Chan Poling’s new musical Venus, but one crucial thing is very, very right: the graphic design. The production opens with animated credits by Little and Company, the enterprise that is also responsible for the snappy posters and the projected backdrops. In a town where some of our finest theater companies [significant glance in the direction of LynLake] seem to outsource their advertising to church bulletin designers, Venus‘s vintage graphics—an homage to the bold, blocky UPA style of the 1950s—are refreshingly crisp. They give the production a cohesive visual identity that partially makes up for the confusion that prevails in the play itself.
|venus, a musical written by chan poling and directed by myron johnson. presented through may 24 at the ritz theater, 345 13th ave. n.e., minneapolis. for tickets ($35-$40) and information, see ritztheaterfoundation.org.|
Venus is an entertainment with a heavy-handed Message, and that Message is that the glamour industry is full of shit; that girls and women should let their freak flags fly and refuse to capitulate to the wicked capitalist beautymongers with their airbrushed anorexics and snake-oil ointments. The lead character, Maggie (Jennifer Leigh Warren), has a Ph.D. in psudoscience from the same university that educated Dr. McCoy (the core curriculum includes a proseminar in transmogrification); she takes a job in cosmetic chemistry only to discover that her new boss Damon (Shawn Hamilton) openly dismisses the value of his own products, substitutes “baby” for Maggie’s proper honorific, and seems to want to slip his beaker inside her pink lab coat. When Maggie discovers a potion that actually causes her to look and feel younger and inflates her breasts to a size she and her best friend Jo (Jody Briskey) have to squeeze to believe, she assumes the identity of the foxy, mysterious Venus. As Venus gains fame and admirers, Maggie’s long-suffering would-be boyfriend Harry (Joel Liestman) gets so upset that he packs his bags and sings his sorrows to the streetlights in a falsetto that’s paired with Maggie’s low-register response in classic Ashford-and-Simpson style. Will Harry leave? Will Maggie/Venus succumb to Damon’s sleazy manipulation? Will the young girls idolizing Venus be forever doomed to self-hate, eating disorders, and consumer debt? I won’t tell you, but the fact that the opening night performance culminated in a panel discussion featuring the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys may be a slight tip-off.
The strangest aspect of the production is the fact that the lead characters, who apparently are meant to be nearing middle age (reference is made to the fact that Bananarama’s 1986 remake of Shocking Blue’s “Venus” was a hit when Maggie was in college), are costumed like mature adults trying to look like teenagers—Liestman’s hair is grey and apparently Brylcreemed, but he skips out in designer jeans and laceless Chuck Taylors—and act like they’re in a very special episode of Saved By the Bell. Warren at least has an outright caricature she can embrace (thankfully, she does), but Briskey and Liestman are painfully forced to keep straight faces. Briskey is worst off, putting all the gusto she can muster into the character of a 40-something woman who’s never been kissed, who wears a jean jacket covered in tiny flair buttons (I hope at least one of them says Duran Duran), and who seems to be in such a state of inner desperation that she sits around nursing empty bottles of Blue Moon that she stores in a Schell’s six-pack box. We learn about her sad state of liplocklessness during a mournful solo song about the woes of being the perennially faithful best friend to the heroine—Maggie, who doesn’t get too much action herself. “At least I know who I am,” Briskey sings, in a poignant line that seems to undercut the production’s advocacy of self-reliance. The villains, meanwhile, get the best among the generally unexceptional songs, with Hamilton having far more fun as a lecherous cynic than any of the pained idealists we’re supposed to admire. His Smithers-like aide Troy (Ian Holcomb) makes little secret of the fact that he’d like to be the boss’s right-hand man in a very literal sense; Holcomb’s abbreviated coming-out number provides the production’s funniest moment.
I saw Venus with my aunt Betsy, who noted the irony of the fact that the musical’s most enjoyable scenes are precisely those awash in the shallow glitz we’re meant to be disgusted by. (Taking the stage at show’s end, Poling informed the audience that “beauty is an addiction.”) Those of us with doctorates in social pseudoscience can repair to the Modern Café to discuss the relevance of Foucault’s theory about our fascination with the forbidden, but the rest of you should head downstream to the Ordway, where last week Betsy brought a teenage girl to see Legally Blonde: The Musical. The girl loved Legally Blonde, Betsy said, because it was so witty. (By contrast, the wittiest line in Venus is a lyric about dental floss.) Legally Blonde‘s postmodern message that an empowered woman can look like a pawn of the patriarchy—that we shouldn’t judge a book by its pink satin cover—seems much more genuinely empowering than Venus‘s bewildering espousal of woolen overcoats, oversized eyeglasses, personal liberation, and sexual frustration.