A very different show than Isango Ensemble’s companion piece, Magic Flute, Venus and Adonis is more somber, less accessible, and is more of an acquired taste. While Flute is deliriously fun for all ages, Venus and Adonis is definitely slanted to a more sedate crowd ready to hunker down and deal with the vagaries of unrequited love, submission to the wispy whims of fate, and untimely death. In the hands of the Isango Ensemble, the story is deeply rooted in tribal tradition, its Shakespearean message by way of Greek tragedy notwithstanding. Isango Africanized it and with the superb cast, is generally able to pull it off.
The two lead performers from Flute, Pauline Malefane and Mhlehazi (Wha Wha) Mosiea, take on the principal roles here, too, but they blend in the tightly woven talented ensemble even more than in Flute. When Venus, the Goddess of Love is inadvertently pricked by her son Cupid (funny comic relief by the clown-like Zamile Gamtamoa), she becomes consumed with uncontrollable desire for the gorgeous galloping Adonis. He resists her increasingly insistent advances and eventually escapes her erotic clutches but not before she uses every possible way to seduce him. Here’s where the production loses its edgy appeal for Westerners not familiar with the various African languages used. Once Venus stakes her territory and is rebuffed, she brings out her arsenal of irresistible enticements represented by no fewer than seven cuties, each more urgent than the next, pleading, stroking, cajoling Adonis with entreaties of arousal and pleasure, in one case even gorgeous Gemini twins.
While his physical motions of rejection are unmistakable, the extensive dialog is incomprehensible, even though he would occasionally snap out of his remorseful stare and respond in clear English. The various languages ebb and flow interweaving like the lavish white streaming materials used throughout the scenes. Clearly the designers are trying to make the point that language is only one vehicle of communication, a case that generally works but with effort.
VENUS AND ADONIS
Closes September 20, 2014
Isango Ensemble at
Shakespeare Theatre Company
450 7th Street NW
1 hour, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – $80
Details and Tickets
Performing Oct 19
Center Stage, Baltimore
Details and tickets
In contrast to the multiple and even lavish costumes in Flute designed by Leigh Bishop, the Venus and Adonis cast is attired in earth-toned colors, designed by Gail Behr, for a monochromatic effect that helps relay a sense of solidarity – the men hunt and face dangers together as a collective unit, and the women are so much a sisterhood that they are nearly one. The dances and group gatherings relay the intention as well, again with choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana with more ritual movements, simulation of a galloping horse, a wild boar, even a scary personification of death.
Original music is also a key distinguishing factor between the two productions –the score by music conductor Mandisi Dyantyis consists of simple linear passages culminating with the requiem sounding finale. In the second Act when Venus is finally notified of Adonis’s fate and rushes to his side, the mournful music of that final passage depicts her staggering disbelief of what is happening –a goddess is simply not accustomed to mortality. We watch as the creeping reality of death finally hits her and the actress’s heartfelt wails, as portrayed by Pauline Malefane, come from deep within. It’s a tough scene, beautifully rendered, but not a joyfest. The community gathers the billowing white strips to clear the stage, rose petals suddenly appear replacing the fallen Adonis, and the music reflects the somber life passage.
Challenging though it is, hearing Shakespeare’s text, based on the ancient Ovid tale in African languages, including Zulu and Afrikaans is world class artistry. The Shakespeare Theater Company believes in the “power of art to transcend cultural barriers” and made this happen in the nation’s capitol as part of its Presentation Series. The sites, sounds, images, and captivating appeal of the Isango Ensemble’s production of Venus and Adonis have left a lasting legacy worldwide—and now also thankfully, right here at the Lansburgh Theater.
Venus and Adonis by William Shakespeare . Adapted and performed by Isango Ensemble . Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.
Mike Paarlberg . City Paper a much less focused mishmash of opera, theater, ballet, and percussive performance….
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins . DCMetroTheaterArts passionate and innovative
Ellen Burns . BroadwayWorld this joyous, multitalented, charismatic company could stage my grocery list.