Nearly 200 years ago, a woman named Sartje Baartman was whisked out of Africa and exhibited in Europe as an anatomical freak, the chief point of fascination being the amplitude of her caboose. Baartman was advertised as "The Venus Hottentot," a spectacle of titillation and revulsion: "Come and see what even God hisself don't want to look at," purrs a huckster in "Venus," Suzan-Lori Parks's showy mid-1990s play loosely based on Baartman's story.
There's not much odd about Baartman/Venus, though, in Eve Muson's staging of "Venus" at the Olney Theatre Center. Yes, Chinasa Ogbuagu, the actress who plays the hapless Baartman, wears only a few strips of bright cloth over a body suit adorned with a pair of large rings at nipple level, but costume designer Vasilija Zivanic doesn't give Ogbuagu the fleshy extra padding that some performers have used in the role. The curves on display aren't eye-popping; they're everyday. And Ogbuagu acts with a lovely easygoing style -- she's natural onstage, playing Baartman's understandable naivete and guileless ambition as elements of charm.
Ogbuagu and Muson seem to have taken pains to make Baartman the most "normal" figure on the stage, for in every other respect this "Venus" is getting the Fellini treatment. It's vaudeville gone grotesque: James Kronzer's set suggests the stands inside a circus tent, and Colin K. Bills's harsh lighting often catches the actors in footlight style from underneath. The six-person chorus, at one point called on to play the Lowest Links in God's Great Chain of Being (each of them higher than the Venus Hottentot), all wear bright ruffled silks on their heads and around their necks, and are otherwise dressed in black. They look like grim, sophisticated clowns as they lurk, chant and strike garish poses.
Muson isn't alone in hearing music in Parks's celebrated linguistic curlicues, but she may be among the first to turn parts of "Venus" into actual songs. The opening sequence is now a full-fledged number, with Parks's refrains pulsing to a tinny oompah melody. (Mike Wells is credited as the show's composer.) The logic is clear, but the result is like ladling syrup on frosted cake. The script is pretty tricked-out to begin with; it counts backward through 31 scenes, some of which come with footnotes -- some literary, others historical, etc. Muson meets Parks's brainy, hellzapoppin' showmanship head-on, and the result isn't always complementary. In Act 1, the excess is particularly oppressive. It's a cluttered look and a clatter of sound.
It calms down in Act 2 as the story dwells a bit on the odd semi-romance between Baartman and the Baron Docteur, who fetishizes her collection of body parts like a pervert engineer. (Nothing in the show is more horrific than hearing Baartman's anatomy clinically catalogued bit by bit.) KenYatta Rogers brings a canny blend of velvet and steel to the role; if his is the most nuanced of the supporting performances, it's partly because he has the most supple material to work with. Most of the rest of the acting has the strut and hard sell of sideshows, from Michael Anthony Williams's deliberately broad turn as the Negro Resurrectionist to Barbara Pinolini's brassy vulgarity as the Mother-Showman (the most convincing of her several spiky roles).
The paradox of "Venus" is that despite the vaudeville tactics, Parks steers as far as she can from melodrama, yet this object lesson in exploitation keeps inching in that direction anyway. How do you score fresh points and avoid simply pleading for sympathy? Making a running joke of Victorian stage melodrama is one of Parks's many answers, along with the academic veneer and the winking hustle. As a piece of writing, "Venus" is brave, sweeping and rambling; it bristles with arch intellect, even if it sometimes overreaches. It seems like a trap for directors to try to equal the repertoire of assertive moves in this early work of hers; better perhaps to cede Parks the dance floor and watch her whirl.
Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Eve Muson. Sound design, Karin Graybash. With Erik Andrews, Denise Diggs, James O. Dunn, Kimberly Parker Green, Nehal Joshi and MaryBeth Wise. Approximately 21/2 hours. Through Sept. 26 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.