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Theater review: AvantVanGuard's Venus and Adonis

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The run in Venus's stocking wasn't the only blemish in the faultless ethereal beauty of the love goddess as the AvantVanGuard latenight series presented its dramatized version of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis at CAST for a second weekend, with two more performances yet to go. Anyone who remembers writer/director Tony Wright's most recent conflation of sci-fi and the Victoria's Secret catalogue, the all-female Actor's Gym production of his original Omega in 2004, can begin to imagine what he has done in his new S&M onslaught on Greek mythology.

Certainly Shakespeare didn't leave the old story of fertility god Adonis (possibly derived from the Hebrew word for lord) and the lovely Aphrodite as he found it when he wrote his poem in the early 1590s. In Ovid, Adonis is a manly, headstrong huntsman beloved by Venus, too cocky to heed his admirer's warning not to hunt animals that don't turn tail and flee from him.

Shakespeare layers on the goddess's obsessive wooing and the lad's petulant rejections, quadrupling the length of Ovid's account, which is interrupted by the story of Atalanta, a digression typical in Metamorphoses. But after a memorable nocturnal coupling, mellifluously appended to the Latin poet's storyline, the fatal outcome is the same.

Without changing a word of the Bard's text, Wright ladles on bushel-baskets of forbidden fruit in his concepting: whips, chains, corsets, gloves, garters, stiletto heels, and the full visual vocabulary of S&M. Casting Leslie Beckham as Adonis -- and adding two more narrator/attendants in dominatrix gear -- turns the heat even higher for this AvantVanGuard sexual gumbo.

All this wanton lagniappe would collapse into a gooey puddle were it not for Jennifer Barnette, who puts almost as much life and allure into Shakespeare's quatrains and couplets as she puts into her leathers and silks. Barnette, you will recall, was the sumptuous Aphrodite in last year's Metamorphoses, but this role is far more demanding. Peak eroticism is reached about halfway in the 1194-line text, leaving a heavy burden on Barnette's lovely shoulders as she entreats Adonis not to hunt with his fellows on the morning after their lovemaking. We found out at luxurious length how low seductive Barnette's voice can be.

Her supplications are subverted in more ways than necessary by Beckham's lackluster portrait of Adonis. Manliness, vanity, and charisma are all discarded in favor of a sullen, monochromatic resentment devoid of either innocence or sexuality. So the argumentation between Venus and Adonis, the true hunter and quarry here, is littered with tedium because of the unremitting gloominess in Beckham's rebuffs. Worse, this Adonis often can't be heard in the front row of the intimate CAST boxagon. I had to rush home and pull out a copy of Shakespeare's poetry to remind myself of what the final stanza contains.

Now Wright is quite aware of the challenges facing his cast in the latter half of the poem, and his staging is spiced with a couple of tantalizing bondage episodes as a silver chain descends obligingly from overhead. Yet Wright is fundamentally wrong in how far he's willing to go with the S&M shtick. Neither Adonis nor Venus ever enjoys

the pain or the shackling inflicted upon them, and a couple of the whippings were so sissified that they drew laughter from the audience. If Wright is trying to show us the dark primal, pagan side of love, he and his women need to be edgier.

As the Orange Haired and Black Haired Mistresses, Karina Roberts and Courtney Wright enhance the physical and ceremonial aspects of this production, and they're nearly as good with the verse as Barnette. Altogether, this is a rather cunning way to take in Shakespeare's narrative in the handy space of 66 minutes. So I'm left wondering: Is the Bard's "Rape of Lucrece" too hot for AvantVanGuard to handle?

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