From 03/30/2006 to 04/23/2006


VENUS is based on the true life of Saartje Baartman, a woman lured from her South African home with the promise of “making a mint” as a dancer. She was then sold into a London freak show and exhibited to a voracious public, fascinated by her anatomy, especially her large posterior.


The reviews are in.

“Sha Cage commands the stage as Venus. Wearing a body suit to represent her character’s unique shape, Cage quickly becomes Venus. It’s a complex character – one that is exploited throughout, but also willing to use that exploitation to her own ends. She interacts mainly with two actors. Maria Asp plays the various exploiters who take her from Africa to England and, finally, to and from her grave. Patrick Bailey plays a doctor who “purchases” Venus as an object of scientific study, and eventually of something resembling love. Both take on their unlikable characters with full vigor.

“We should commend Frank Artistic Director (and Venus director) Wendy Knox for taking on the show. it also features a striking central performance, a deeper message about surviving exploitation and a string of visuals that will haunt the viewer long after the show has ended.” —talkin’,

“When you hear the name Wendy Knox, founding artistic director at Frank Theatre, think firebrand. You can count on one hand, with fingers leftover, Twin Cities venues committed to “the exploration of ideas and issues of social, political and/or cultural concern,” as the website asserts. Knox established the company back in 1989 and it’s still going strong..

“By the same turn, when inter-disciplinary artist and accomplished actor-playwright Shá Cage’s name comes up, think grassroots innovation. Cage, most well-known as co-founding development director at Minnesota Spoken Word Association, founded MaMa mOsAic Theater…And as you get wind of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Obie-award-winning “Venus” at Frank Theatre, get next to the concept of Knox directing with Cage leading the cast. Then look out: All socially-conscientious, artistically-sound hell is liable to break loose.

“As for execution, it’s hard to go wrong with Wendy Knox and Shá Cage. Over the past decade and a half, Knox has directed offerings at Guthrie Lab, Cricket Theatre, Southern Theater and Red Eye Collaboration, in addition to 35 Frank Theatre productions. Cage, first directed by Knox in Parks’ “Fucking A” at Frank Theatre, has acted at Theatre De La Jeune Lune, Pangea World Theater, National Theater For Children, Alchemy Theater and Steppingstone Theatre. Knox chose this script because, “Frank Theatre has a real kind of affinity with Suzan-Lori Parks’ work.” –Dwight Hobbs, PULSE

“The intersection of race and sex, erupting from the deepest fissures in our history, is so white-hot that to approach it is to be burned. Audiences will thus be duly singed by Frank Theatre’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus, a fearless headlong rush at a play awash in brutality, disgust, and despair.

“Things are bleak and nasty, and Parks intensifies the ambiguity by motivating her humiliated Venus with base material dreams. The role is an astonishing blend of venality, defiance, and degradation, and the struggle is apparent in Cage’s gutsy work. A dynamic and elemental performer, Cage at first spits out her lines, as though protesting the very premise that has landed her onstage. Later, she softens her Venus with a girlish openness that, in its context, is equally disturbing.

“This regional premiere of a 10-year-old play is Frank’s third production of Parks’s work, and the two theater artists seem uniquely suited to one another. Knox’s strength as a director is to meld restless intellectualism with heedless faith in the power of uncensored emotion.” –Quinton Skinner, City Pages,

“Sometimes theatre worms its way into primal parts of you. You’re left feeling unsettled and with more questions than answers. Frank Theatre never flinches from taking on challenging material, and their current production of Suzy-Lori Parks’ Venus is as big a risk as I’ve seen a theatre take…

“Based on the true, (but, sketchy) story of, Saartjie Baartman, a woman of the Khoikhoi tribe in South Africa, who was taken to London and put on near-nude display in 1810. She became known as the “Venus Hottentot” and died five years later, at the age of 26. This play is a 19th-century freak-show/musical, skulking a razor’s edge between re-creation and parody. Joel Sass transforms the Traffic Zone space into a perfect convergence of museum storage vault, circus ring and Victorian tableaus. The garish “freaks” and their mendacious handlers are a kind of melodrama on meth, with energy to burn. Ultimately, the audience is lured into a complicit voyeurism.

“When we do glimpse the human woman behind the totally sexualized “Other” of Parks’ pen, it’s only because of the always stunning talent of Sha Cage, who could soulfully read a grocery list. Cage brings a more complex humanity than Parks has imagined. She gives us moments of bewildered sweetness, thorny endurance, and a hint of longing too painful to say aloud, but emanating from her along with an infinite loneliness.

“The various showmen (and gawkers) only respond to her with equal measures of economic opportunism and/or predatory sexuality, yet whatever moral outrage one should feel on Venus’ behalf keeps being dissipated by Park’s feeding Venus lines like “I’m here to make a mint” or her “bargaining” with “The Mother-Showman,” played with perfect excess by Maria Asp (a Frank staple).” –Lydia Howell,Twin Cities Daily Planet

“At Frank Theatre, Sha Cage courageously portrays this woman exploited, beaten, and betrayed by freak-show managers and decadent nobility. Though the subject itself begs sensationalism, Cage finds vulnerability beneath the tough exterior. Director Wendy Knox palpably creates the harsh psychic atmosphere germane to such horrendous exploitation. Therefore, the result is unsettling in an internal way, rather than prurient. As irony is key for such effect, Frank’s crackling ensemble employs vicious vaudevillian shtick steered by the sardonic flair of Dana Munson’s “Negro Resurrectionist,” a carnival-style barker for freak shows. Knox’s spectral vision is enhanced further by set designer Joel Sass’s disarmingly artful use of taxidermy motifs; exquisite costumes by Kathy Kohl; and Michael Croswell’s sublime sound design that recalls the murky underworld evoked in the music of Kurt Weill.” –John Townsend, Lavender,

“I’m so glad Frank is having this love affair with Parks! All that cursing! All that pissed-off, third-wave feminist angst! I spoon it all up! Their productions of The America Play and Fucking A are both theater experiences that burned into my memory. Especially catchy was, in A, the hunters who haunted around singing their cute, lil’ hunters’ creed. As I remember it: “Hunters / We hunt / But we don’t eat what we catch / Because that would be a little much / Dontcha think?” (It was, of course, camped-up somewhat Minnesota-style.)” –The Rake Secret of the Day

“Maria Asp is terrifically horrible as a leeringly nasty spoiler in various roles throughout. She always enters at just the right moment to make Venus’ life darker, whether she is the deceitful liar who brings Venus to England or the abusive Mother-Showman who makes a fortune displaying Venus while paying her a pittance.

“Kathy Kohl’s costumes — including the artificial naked behind of Venus — are an asset to the production, as is Joel Sass’ wild, sideshow-flavored set, which includes a dog mummy and a fake unicorn head….

“Venus” is a bizarre and disturbing story of a celebrity from the 19th century who remains an object of fascination in the 21st century. Knox gives it the Frank treatment it deserves.” –Pioneer Press

“There’s a papier-mache fish, maybe eight feet long, suspended from the ceiling. A skeleton of a two-headed baby displayed in a rough-hewn wood box. Freak-show posters, depicting dog-faced boys, tattooed men and midgets, hanging from the walls.

“Welcome to Wendy Knox’s newest playhouse.

“The artistic director of the perpetually itinerant Frank Theatre has staged work everywhere from gritty former department stores to abandoned industrial buildings. For her theater’s current production of “Venus,” Knox and scenic designer Joel Sass are converting an old painting studio on the outskirts of downtown Minneapolis into a sideshow exhibition.

“Casting her glance around the assemblage of props, paperwork and a tangle of assorted odd material waiting to be gathered and placed and called a theater, Knox smiles mischievously. “You should have seen it on the day we came in to clean up.”

“If, just a week from opening night, it’s difficult to see how a play is going to emerge from all this clutter, that’s perhaps an apt metaphor for the play itself.

“This is one of her harder plays,” Knox says of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. “It took me a million times reading to get through and figure out what this play’s about. But I think we’re finding a way to help an audience make sense of it.”

“That’s the story. But what’s the play really “about?” Racism? Sexism? Capitalism? Voyeurism?

“Knox — who, perhaps more than any other director in town, relishes wrestling difficult scripts — offers a moment of silence and a thoughtful stare.

“It’s been about a lot of different things as we’ve been working on it,” she finally offers. “I’m not so interested in (Baartman) as a victim. Those kinds of stories are a dime a dozen. What makes this play so interesting is the idea that, while she’s not responsible for what happened to her, she is complicit. She participated in these events. She came to Europe to make money, and she agreed to do some of these things.”–Dominic Papatola, Pioneer Press,