Theatre review: Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Epic Poems Part I: Venus and Adonis

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Theatre review: Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s Epic Poems Part I: Venus and Adonis

Venus and Adonis, by Titian

Venus and Adonis, by Titian

Courtesy National Gallery of Art

Venus and Adonis, by Titian

Courtesy National Gallery of Art

Courtesy National Gallery of Art

Venus and Adonis, by Titian

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Though William Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis is a poem, not a play, it is just as dramatic in director Brando Cutts’s adaptation. And Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s (LBSC) performance of it as a 1940s-style radio play– including lots of animal sound effects– highlights its rhymes, as the goddess of love herself is rejected by a handsome mortal male who would really rather go hunting.

Part of the charm of Venus and Adonis– the first of two long-form poems LBSC is performing this month in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday– is how it reverses recent headlines. Instead of a woman being harassed by a powerful male, we have a man who wants to go about his business and a powerful woman who won’t leave him alone. Venus makes it all too obvious what she wants even as Adonis resists. In fact, he feels “shame” and “insulted” by her very explicit overtures. #MenToo anyone?

Based on a tale by Ovid, this late 16th-century poem was perhaps Shakespeare’s earliest publication, and a very popular one, with its sensual descriptions of the hills and dales of Venus’s body through landscape metaphors and her lustful pining for the inexplicably indifferent Adonis. He does his best to resist her appeals and remove himself from the scene, but she keeps finding a way to entangle him in her undressed arms.

The tension between them is palpable, even in this radio-play format, and since Cutts divides the male and female perspectives among four players, the narrative ball is always bouncing. Brenda Dere is a richly voiced Venus (and makes cute kissing sounds). Though perhaps because she gets the majority of lines, she occasionally comes across as simply reading when the story pace quickens. But LBSC veteran Jo McLachlan assists in delivering the female point of view in a highly engaging and entertaining way.

On the male side, Roberto Williams strikes a perfect balance as the resistant yet sensitive Adonis. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy to deny quenching Venus’s very deep thirst, but rather like someone being imposed upon against his will and sensibilities. Cutts himself narrates the remaining lines while also directing the other performers and music.

Kelly Voelker rounds out the five-person cast with on-stage sound effects, such as a horse trotting and Venus and Adonis rolling in the grass. And all the performers create various animal sounds excellently! Those animals include Adonis’s hunting hound, an owl, a lark, the dangerous tusked boar Adonis is pursuing, and an extended sequence involving Adonis’s stallion and a frisky passing mare that it becomes hugely enamored by. Yes, all of nature seems to be in Venus’s lusty thrall.

Part two of LBSC’s epic-poem April– The Rape of Lucrece– begins April 19 and will be a somewhat darker, more violent radio play centered on the rape in question and its political fallout. By contrast, Venus’s sensual yet logical propositions to Adonis, however unwanted, might seem downright delightful.

Continuing through this weekend only, you may want to see Venus and Adonis before the next play to experience these different gradations of unwanted advances, which– as literature often does– may even help you understand more of what’s going on today with our real-world authority figures.

Venus and Adonis continues at the Helen Borgers Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., through this weekend, with shows Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $12.50. For tickets and information, call (562) 997-1494 or visit LBShakespeare.org.