I'd like to say a few words about William Shakespeare, the Goddess of Love, and some of my women. We've just started serious work on Venus and Adonis. It was Shakespeare's first work ever to appear in print, the first "heir to my own invention," and it turned out to be his biggest hit. It went through nine printed editions, making Shakespeare almost a household word. So why is Venus and Adonis so rarely performed these days? Well, for starters, it's a poem, not a play. And quite a static poem, too. Its verse is ornate and filigreed, not dramatic. When pressed, we can think of no very obvious reason for staging the poem. Well, one: Tracy Hostmyer, Goddess of Love. She practically demands a spotlight and adoration, just like Venus herself. Tracy is Venus, at least on stage. Here she is, with her reluctant boytoy.
Tracy is quite a girl, and so is Shakespeare's Venus. Venus is all goddess, and all woman, all the time. Love is all she thinks about, all she is. And being perfect and divine and all powerful she gets whatever she wants---except in this case. Venus is in love with Adonis, as who wouldn't be? After all, he's an Adonis--he is Adonis. But Shakespeare's lovely youth doesn't care about that, or about about Venus either. All he wants to to get away from this insistent, smothering older woman who won't leave him alone,so he can go do guy stuff like hunting the boar.
In his poem, Shakespeare has inverted the usual renaissance love dynamic, which features an ardent young man pleading endlessly with his beautiful but frosty mistress. Distance and dissatisfaction combine to inflame desire, increase torment and occasion poetry. We wouldn't have sonnets without women being placed on remote pedestals by their admirers--and for that matter we wouldn't have Silvius and Phoebe in As You Like It, who caricature the standard Petrachan lovers of the 16th century. We wouldn't have Venus and Adonis, either. But in this case it is the woman doing the wooing and the man doing the chilling. It's set up as a comedy--as if Mae West were courting a spokesman for teenage abstinence. It's also, at times, very steamy. Here is Venus advertising herself as a kind of wildlife sanctuary:
Graze on my lips,and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom grass, and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest and from rain.
The be my deer, since I am such a park;
No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark.
The part requires a woman with absolute confidence in her sexual appeal and authority. We thank the gods for Tracy. On the first day of rehearsal she announced, with a smile, "this play is called VENUS (and adonis)." The funny thing is, she's absolutely right. Venus is always center stage, she's always talking, and she has a dramatic range that would not be approached by Shakespeare for another 17 years, when he got around to writing Cleopatra. Like Cleopatra (or Mae West), Venus begins comically. She's overripe, overheated, hilarious, embarrassing and even alarming in her abundant confidence, desperation and prodigal sexuality. But her comedy takes a turn after Adonis finally secures his leave taking--and goes off on his fatal boar hunt. His fearful would-be Mistress, heart pounding, runs after him, only to find him gored, lying in a pool of his own blood. It's not so funny anymore. Her lust, which earlier seemed predatory, now looks an awful lot like love. Her wanton abandon now looks like absolute vulnerability. A soft porn comedy has become something else entirely.
It's too early to say what we can make of all this. But even more than As You Like It, this is a woman centered work. By some chance, this has also become a woman centered production. Besides Venus, our narrator is a woman, the bright eyed Kaityln Riordan. Our percussionist is a woman, Crystal Bliss, keeper of Venus' hot pulse. Our stage manager is a woman, and not just any woman but the perfectly named Alisha Pagan, a woman who openly celebrates her womanliness (you may have seen her last as the temptress in Dar al-Harb). One of our assistant stage managers, Millie Harrison, is a wonderful high school intern who has got quite an education with us (last year she was squirting blood from under the stage; this year it's all about sex). I would worry about her if I did not know she is the healthiest and most wholesome of creatures. Another intern, Maggie Robinson, has just joined us after spending her junior year abroad with the Lecoq acting school in Paris--when asked she could instantly bound on stage transforming herself into a flirtatious young filly (I am not speaking only metaphorically). Working our way through the poem, I have begun to feel how all the women in the room come to sympathize with Venus, goddess of love; how, at times, so exposed, so silly,and so beautiful, she seems to speak for all of them.
I'm very lucky to be here.