Venus Theatre focuses on women writers

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Robert Friedman

The female-focused Venus Theatre, in Laurel, Md., is now presenting a series of one-act plays about the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century. Performers shown here, left to right, are Jean H. Miller, Christine Jacobs, Emily Sucher (back row); Allison Frisch and Erin Hanratty (front row).
Photo courtesy of Deborah Randall

Deborah Randall says her audiences have an “immersion experience” at the Venus Theatre in Laurel, and this could include, as it recently did, sharing a dinner being cooked up on stage.

In Soft Revolution, a play about Afghans in Australia, Venus founder-director Randall felt the recent production needed a sign of authenticity, so a pot of Kabuli palaw, the Afghan national dish, simmered on stage throughout the one-act play.

After the curtain descended, the crockpot was hauled into the lobby and the audience was served plates of the steamed rice mixed with raisins, carrots and lamb.

Nothing, apparently, goes to waste at the North Laurel theater, which has been operating since 2001 on a bare budget of about $30,000 a year. It is currently located in a former Chinese restaurant that was converted into a 30-seat playhouse. The theater usually stages four productions a year.

The stage works are all written by women. They come from all over the world, and the productions have received kudos from critics and fans who have journeyed to Laurel for the performances. (D.C. Metro Theater Arts website critic Michael Poandl called the avant garde Venus theatre “a remarkable gem in the D.C.-area theatre landscape.”) 

Women’s suffrage plays

Season 17 started on March 16 with a presentation of one-act plays about women’s suffrage in turn-of-the-20th-century England. The plays are culled from The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays.

In keeping with the unique production values of the theater, after the members of the audience are given colorful resumes of the eight available one-act plays, they get to vote each night on which three or four they want to see over the next 90 minutes or so.

This means most likely that the same plays will not be presented each night during the suffrage run, which ends April 9. The Edwardian Era plays are mostly comic views on the woman’s vote, pro-and-con, cockney and upper-class.

Randall noted that there were “some 400 female playwrights between 1900 and 1920” in Great Britain, and lots of them were writing about gender equality at the polling station, as well as in other places.

Some 120 plays were submitted to Venus for their 2017 season, somewhat less than the usual 200 or so that Randall said she reads yearly for possible staging. In addition to the British women’s suffrage plays, this year’s selections include the premiere from an American playwright, and plays from Greece and Australia. 

Randall, a 50-year-old performer and playwright as well as director, is a native of Prince George’s County. For the past several years, she has resided in the North Laurel section of Howard County, an area she says she loves.

Randall sees theater more as a means of personal survival than a star-is-born proposition. “The theater saved my life as a kid,” she said.

“It gave me an alternative way to look at life, an alternative way to live. In my 20s, when I didn’t do theater for a time, I tried to go into insurance. I got sick, I had migraines sitting all day in a cubicle.”

Although she has performed one-woman shows and been in plays in D.C. and area theaters, “My goal was never to be a star,” she said.

Another, deeper version of the theater life appeals to her. “I like to be involved in alternate stories that haven’t been heard,” she said. “We need the other side, the other perspective.”

Although Venus productions are all written by women and reflect their issues, Randall said that plenty of men show up for Venus productions and find them relevant.

“I’ve had men tell me after a production, maybe about domestic or parental violence, ‘You’re telling my story,’” she said.

Randall pointed out a note of recent tragedy. She has dedicated the Venus productions to Trisha McCauley, an actress and yoga instructor who was raped and murdered in D.C. last Christmas Day.

“I loved her very much,” Randall said of McCauley, her longtime friend and theater collaborator.

Upcoming shows

The Venus Theatre’s other 2017 season productions include:

Tunnel Vision, May 11-June 5, by Andrea Lepcio, in which two unacquainted women find themselves “stuck” in an unfamiliar, unidentified space. They are unsure how they got there, and struggle to maintain their composure and avoid confronting the circumstances that brought about their arrivals, as well as their growing attraction to one another.

Among the themes are the problems of balancing motherhood with a career, the stigma attached to not traveling the traditional gender path, the difficulty and fear that comes with love. The play ultimately is a “journey of acceptance and redemption from which truth, purpose and love unexpectedly emerge.”

Aglanike’s Tiger, Sept. 7-Oct. 1, is a world premiere by Claudia Barnett about Greece’s first female astronomer, who was able to predict lunar eclipses but whose science was suspect because she was a woman. To survive, she goes on to bill herself as a sorceress, claiming she can draw down the moon.

Her story is presented in a series of challenges, both scientific and magical, as the play draws on both ancient Greek traditions and postmodernism, with the use of masks and puppets to explore its political, ecological and scientific themes.

The Ravens, Nov. 2-26, a U.S. premiere by Alana Valentine, set in Sydney Australia, concerning a “sex worker” trying to quit her profession. She comes into a considerable payout of cash, which causes more of a problem than a relief.

The play, first presented on radio, won the 2015 BBC International Radio Writing Award. Its stage premiere at Venus Theatre explores lesbianism and prostitution as well as “fierce insights and compassion” about the struggle of women against violence.

Admission for each presentation at the Venus Theatre is $40 “for those who can afford it,” said Randall. “If you say you are a friend of Venus, the charge is $20,” she added.

Venus Theatre is located at 21 C St., Laurel. For more information and tickets, see www.venustheatre.org or call (202)-236-4078.