Off-Off Broadway is made for this kind of treat. This week, those who attend Venus and Adonis at HERE can hear:
Who sees his true-love in her naked bed,
Teaching the sheets a whiter hue than white,
But, when his glutton eye so full hath fed,
His other agents aim at like delight?
Who is so faint, that dare not be so bold
To touch the fire, the weather being cold?
I had never read Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. It's a full-length erotic poem which was, the liner notes for the Blue Coyote Theater Group's stage adaptation at HERE inform us, the Bard's first published work. Popular in its own time, it has been largely overlooked since, and it's not hard to see why; this is young Shakespeare, more in love with moments than movement. Yet there are beautifully executed scenes here, which the author recycled for use in such plays as A Midsummer's Night Dream and Antony and Cleopatra.
Still, the poem does not immediately strike one as food for the stage. The love goddess Venus (Marnie Klar) pines for the beautiful boy Adonis (Daniel Hendricks Simon), who is totally unmoved. She cajoles him in her bower, then finally releases him to the boar hunt where he meets his death. Operatic before opera, the poem consists of one or two beautiful moments stretched into a plot.
Director/adapter Tim O'Leary originally workshopped a stage version of Venus and Adonis at the Roger Hendricks Simon Studio. Then, after a brief incarnation in the "Bard at the Bar" series on the Upper West Side, it was brought to HERE to stand on its own after a short three weeks. Praise for this production indicates what good use the company made of that time.
Clarity of language is very much in evidence here; the poem is beautifully spoken, and effort was obviously spent in wrestling out each meaning. The narration is placed the mouths of a chorus, energetically played by Kyle Ancowitz, Robert Buckwalter, Julie Galdieri, Hanna Hayes, and Kristin Proctor. Every stanza is delivered neatly, like another course in a banquet, well-prepared and easily digestible. Spare movement enhances the text without distracting.
The production does lean toward the cerebral, which is sometimes inappropriate for Shakespeare's borderline blue verse. Venus herself, voluptuous goddess of love, comes across as bookish, even when delivering lines like "I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer / Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale / Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry / Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie." The chorus, friendly in their fervor to convey meaning, sometimes acts as a splash of cold water upon a blazing relic of stroke literature.
But, all in all, this is unique and moving theater. Near the close, when everything ends (no surprise!) in tragedy, Venus vows her revenge: "Sith in his prime death does my love destroy, / They that love best their loves shall not enjoy," she intones--a moan for a lost love, probably that of Shakespeare for his Earl of Southampton. Venus and Adonis is a fine example of a semi-precious classic rescued. It speaks now, as then, to those who love, lust, and lose.