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THEATER REVIEW : Charisma Carries 'Venus'

June 19, 1995|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORANGE — Benjamin Stewart launched Shakespeare Orange County's 1995 summer season Friday at the Waltmar Theatre here with a remarkable one-man dramatization of "Venus and Adonis."

Rarely seen on stage except as a reading, the epic poem that first made Shakespeare's literary reputation tells the mythic tale of Venus' infatuation with Adonis and her frustrated attempt to bed him.

Stewart, a regular at the Ahmanson Theatre 20 years ago, hardly seems the physical embodiment of either the swooning goddess or the breathtakingly handsome youth. The 52-year-old actor looks in girth and gaze far more like a puckish version of Charles Laughton, with smooth jowls that make him seem a cherub rather than a bulldog.

But Stewart is such a charismatic performer and his solo presentation so captivating that he easily passes for both the sexually aroused Venus in all her lasciviousness and the virginally disdainful Adonis in all his pristine chastity. You don't for a moment doubt the spell Stewart casts as each of them.

It isn't just the quicksilver changes, the sharply etched details, the distinct moods or the clarity of the characterizations that make Stewart's show a Shakespearean experience not to be missed. This "Venus and Adonis" pairs the Bard's linguistic genius--his metaphors of unsurpassed brilliance and his rhetorical power--with a highly theatrical performance capable of great scale and intensity, as well as intricate subtlety and nuance.

Stewart transforms the eroticism of the poem into comedy and its comedy into tragedy. What begins as an appreciation of lust and beauty becomes a satire on Venus' dilemma, and ends as a deeply felt meditation on love and death. Shakespeare fuels it with gorgeous conceits and double-entendres.

"I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer," Venus tells Adonis, encircling him in her arms. "Feed where thou wilt. . . . Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry, / Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie."

She tries to entice him with her "sweet bottom-grass" and "round rising hillocks." But callow Adonis spurns her advances and leaps for his horse. He'd rather go hunting.

Suddenly, Stewart becomes the horse. He breaks from his tether and bounds away, riderless, to a clearing where he has caught sight of a snorting female in heat. He gallops straight to her, "his ears up-prick'd" and "nostrils wide." Adonis' horse is one "well-proportioned steed" inflamed with "high desire." "Look," Stewart says, prancing like a proud stallion, "what a horse should have he did not lack."

The equine courtship, hotly consummated and ingeniously played, provides ironic counterpoint to the match between Venus and Adonis. She wishes he would take a lesson from his horse. But the silly, vainglorious boy remains lukewarm to her entreaties. "I know not love," he replies, "nor will not know it / Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it."

*

Stewart, who is brightly entertaining in the first act, is even more satisfying in the second. With the introduction of the boar, a portent of death, the poem moves into a darker key. Stewart engages our sympathy for Venus. He imbues her with a tragic dimension.

When the hunt gets going and Venus sees that Adonis has been gored to death, she is stunned into sorrow. Stewart offers a haunting silent scream of unspeakable pain (shades of Rod Steiger in "The Pawnbroker"), no less potent than the curse Shakespeare puts in her mouth.

"Since thou art dead, lo, here I prophesy / Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend / It shall be waited on with jealousy / Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end / Ne'er settled equally, but high or low / That all love's pleasure shall not match his woe."

* "Venus and Adonis," the Waltmar Theatre on the Chapman University campus, 301 E. Palm Ave., Orange. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m. Ends July 1. $18-$22. (714) 744-7016. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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