I’ve been here before.
Yes, this time last year—almost to the day—I visited Shaking The Tree Theatre to watch Matthew Kerrigan perform (wonderfully) in another minimally staged show, Dario Fo’s The Dissenter’s Handbook. Among the few audience members, I recall a middle-aged couple each (despite obviously knowing better) texting incessantly during the show, then leaving at intermission. Which left me wondering: Why had they even come?
Kerrigan had just been featured in Artslandia’s “The Lead,” effectively celebritizing him as one of the city’s best actors, and I had a sneaking suspicion that this cashmere-casual couple’s presence at the play had something to do with that. Like foodies who’d order the city’s best duck confit then proclaim it too greasy, these people had tracked down one of Portland’s best actors only to realize that the craft of acting, in and of itself, didn’t “do it” for them. To enjoy theater, they may have needed more appetizers. A kitchen-sink-realistic set, perhaps? A swing-dancing ensemble cast? Who knows? In any case, they needed to see something made out of something, not something magicked out of nothing, as Kerrigan was—and is again—prepared to do.
All of this to say: before you go to Venus and Adonis, ask yourself if you actually like acting. Because just as a duck confit is mere meat and grease, Venus and Adonis is pure acting (and a little grease paint).
The sublime Rebecca Ridenour plays Venus to Kerrigan’s Adonis, and as the pair wrestle their way across the stage and through Shakespeare’s provocative poetry, they fall into the rhythm of a pattern: her pursuing, him resisting. The Goddess of Love, seeming to float in her sparkling gold shift and a cloud of titian hair, repeatedly pounces on the pale youth in the sailor suit, who wriggles out from under her, making a range of excuses. He’s tired. She’s come on too strong and turned him off. He doesn’t “know himself” well enough yet to be in love. In addition to being a refreshing role-reversal in the wake of “pussygate,” this particular production also confronts the obvious reason some men reject some women: not all men are into women. Here and there, Adonis makes his “no” a “Gurl, no-wuh!” in a manner that leaves no ambiguity in his meaning.
With only a few umbrellas, a couple of plain chairs, a small suitcase, and two feather boas serving as both set and props, this pair of…not lovers, but bodies magnetically held in orbit…engages the audience in a shared hypnosis. Easily, we’re able to see a closed umbrella as a horse’s head, a suitcase as a boar’s face. We can believe that Venus is flying, hovering, flinging and choking Adonis with remote gestures of her hands, Star Wars Emporer-style. And thus, a few patterns of language, movement and character gradually but compellingly drive a very simple plot. Until somebody gets hurt.
One more reason this show is not for theater neophytes, but rather a master class in actor appreciation, emerges at the story’s climax, where suddenly it’s not fun and games anymore. Nor is it language and tumbling anymore. Hell, it doesn’t even feel anymore like a traditionally Western form of expression. Suddenly, it’s butoh, or possibly noh. It’s visceral and silent, suspenseful and bizarre. And until the lights go out, it stays that way. What started as date night ends as a meditation on mortality. Prepare your palate accordingly.
Venus and Adonis is on stage at Shaking The Tree Theatre through December 24. STT is concurrently hosting later-evening showings of Spectravagasm.