Venus Theatre takes on 'feminist fables' in new season

Four plays set to premiere at Venus Theatre each have elements of 'no strings attached'

Wild, dark and sad with moments of fun is how Venus Theatre founder Deb Randall describes the 2015 season for the C Street theatre. Four plays written by women will get their premieres in a season Randall has dubbed "Feral 15: Feminist Fables with No Strings Attached."

"I came up with that theme because each play deals with intense topics and they feel wild, like feral cats, who can be wild, playful and unapologetic," Randall said. "I'll use puppetry in each of them, which is where the no strings attached comes in. The puppets and other elements in the plays will keep them fun with lots of color."

Some of the productions may have one puppet and others have as many as 40. Randall said the puppets will take bits of the dark edge off of the plays, which deal with serious and often terrifying story lines.

Randall said the reading she selected for this year's Page-to Stage free readings series at the Kennedy Center set the stage for this year's season at Venus. That play, "Witches Vanish," written by Tennessee playwright Claudia Barnett and set to open at Venus in August, was inspired by the true story of young girls working in factories in Mexico, who vanished.

The play "tells the stories of real women and girls who vanished and the characters chant their names during the show," Randall said. "There are 40 puppets in 'Vanish' and they help convey what it's like to be a woman who's vanished, and the play itself shows the fragility, strength and beauty of women. The other three plays have that same tone and energy."

The first play in this season's lineup, "God Don't Like Ugly," was written by English playwright Doc Andersen-Bloomfield and will hit the stage in March. It centers on domestic violence and mental illness, issues Randall said are "dealt with beautifully."

"There's one loving character who has a mental illness, who has a rough mom, and she knows about the abuse," Randall said. "She has a twin sister who's missing and it's also about being lost because the mom continues to wait for the daughter to come home. It's sad and beautiful."

In May, Boston-based playwright Cecelia Raker's play "Dry Bones" will have its premiere at Venus. It evolves around two children who are the only people left on earth and struggle to figure out what they should be doing.

"It goes back into the Bible, it's poetic and at one point, the children build a man out of mud, which will be a puppet," Randall said.

The fourth play in the season, "Raw," was written by Baltimore-based playwright Amy Bernstein. Its main character will be a giant cow puppet, who's putting together a documentary set on a three-generation family farm.

"It will be told from the cow's perspective, whose documentary talks about how bad humans are to cows as she [the cow] tries to start a revolution," Randall said. "It deals with serious issues in a playful way."

Because of the serious themes of the plays and how they are handled, Randall compared the four plays to Grimm's Fairy Tales, a dark and often gruesome take on classic fairy tales written by German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

"The plays take a dark but playful tone that makes them palatable because they are executed in a fun and funny way at times," Randall said.

As Randall continues to cast some of the roles, including those who will manipulate the puppets in the various shows, she said she's feeling a bit more relaxed this season. Last year was a bit hectic as she worked toward a milestone of producing her 50th play at Venus Theatre. The hard work paid off and Randall said she received several awards for last season's productions, including three best director and best production nods from the D.C. Metro Theatre Arts Awards.

The themes for this season are serious and oftentimes find the characters in sad situations, but Randall said she hopes the plays will inspire audiences to see through those bad times in the plays and find reasons in them to enjoy life.

"Even in the darkest times, it's easy to shut down," Randall said, "and this season's plays acknowledge that but they also show that we can still find joy during those moments, too. When things get hard, you can still find reasons to laugh and play."

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