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In the program distributed at performances of Club Venus, director Shelagh Kenney promises that student playwright Gabrielle Burton will "explore themes of racial and social interaction, ethnic preoccupations, and the resultant effect of a system of extreme social options." It is a lofty aspiration, but one which Kenney's production realizes with remarkable frequency.
Written by Gabrielle Burton '92
Directed by Shelagh Kenney
At the Loeb Experimental Theater
Through October 20
Yes, Club Venus is student-written, and it displays moments of the awkward staging and unconvincing dialogue which one would expect from this type of production. But this play is stuffed with enough candor, vigorous acting and insight to more than compensate for any imperfection in expression.
Club Venus chronicles the Japanese sojourn of Anne (Cara Polites), a Harvard student who works as a hostess in the semi-reputable bar owned by Ono (Michelle Banyas). Rich Tokyo businessmen escape the tedium of their domestic lives at Club Venus; for a fee they can drink, tell bad jokes, and revel in the company of beautiful women.
While the men know exactly what to expect at Venus, Anne does not. She initially hopes to sample native culture and improve her Japanese. Although Anne does gradually adopt local mannerisms, she can never elude her foreign identity; the Japanese discuss her in the third person and dismiss her idiosyncracies as "typically American."
Burton's script is most adept when it describes the mutual ignorance which characterizes relations between the two cultures. While Anne denigrates Japanese popular music by saying "I guess we [Americans] like to understand the words," the Japanese hostesses insist on calling her Mary because they think it is a more American name than her own.
The two leading performers in this production are splendid. As Anne, Polites shows us a powerful mixture of initial naivete and acquired cynicism. She's a disenchanted Dorothy, gasping, "Oh my goodness, oh my goodness," in her initial nervousness towards the Japanese and then bitterly denouncing them when she discovers their persistent hostility. Banyas gives Ono's character a tenderness and resonance of feeling rarely seen on the Harvard stage. She serves as stepmother for Anne, never certain whether the affection she bestows on this young American will be reciprocated or scorned.
Club Venus has several serious and disruptive technical problems. Most scenes are fragmented and terminated with such inexplicable abandon that we laugh in nervous exasperation, and the several scenes featuring Japanese and Caucasian puppets are superfluous. And an unannounced intermission resulted in the departure of several audience members.
More fluid dialogue and sharper editing would have greatly aided this production, as would the introduction of transitional scenes to add coherence. We should not be left in darkness for several minutes while the actors struggle to reposition furniture for the next scene. And the dialogue Burton gives her Japanese characters sounds fake when translated into idiomatic English.
But in a production with so much scope and innovation, technical quibbles can't detract from the overall grandeur. With a little more attention to detail, Burton's next dramatic effort should be magnificent.
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