It may surprise some to know that the most exciting part of the new world premiere of "Venom" by Clint Sheffer last weekend at the Elm Theatre was the unexpected plummet of an overhead light during the second act that could have exacted serious injury or had fatal consequences for an unlucky patron.
Fortunately, the seat on which the fixture fell was unoccupied, which is typically not the case for this small theatre located at 220 Julia Street, the site of earlier critically acclaimed productions such as "Blackbird" and "Orange Flower Water." Considering the confusing and meandering nature of the play, director Pamela Davis-Noland is lucky that even a handful of playgoers were there.
At the request of management, a second opportunity to review "Venom" was extended, showing proper lighting design and a more cohesive performance by all the actors involved. But in the end the play still has serious flaws.
"Venom" purports to relate a tale of an interracial honeymoon couple on the run just outside of New Orleans from a malevolent and cult-like church and the duo of unsavory characters sent to their motel to capture them. The couple is played by Becca Chapman as Meadow and Matthew Thompson as Waylon. Officer Rocky Petite is menacingly played by Damien Anthony Moses, who prefers to be billed as Moses, while his none-too-bright sidekick is Gumdrop, played by Matt Storey.
Much of the action of "Venom" takes place in the motel bathroom and perhaps that is appropriate because much of the material covered seemed without purpose or so ill-conceived that it might have been worthy of a good flushing.
It's not certain if the intent of the playwright was to present a dark comedy or a drama with moments of levity to lighten the work. Whatever the intent, it falls far short on both counts, but not because of the failure of the actors trying to make sense of this work. The blame seems more likely to be found in the lack of vision and execution by both Sheffer and Davis-Noland.
Chapman's character of Meadow is the focus of much of the two acts, a runaway from the so-called "Stone Hand," the enforcers of the local church that preaches hate. According to Meadow, who is haunted by her memory in the church, they consider homosexuals as vermin and regard African-Americans as simians. That she has married a man of color and has foolishly elected to return to where she puts both of them in harm's way is explained illogically. That her husband knows nothing of her past affiliation or that he in no way suspects she is on the run when they inconveniently "ran out of gas," is quite a stretch and another dubious leap of faith in the script.
Were it crafted better, the play could have been an indictment of certain churches that reject other children of God as unworthy and embrace a philosophy of hate and intolerance. But instead, the focus is on the unseen, malevolent force that is the Stone Hand and the cowering of its victims in the motel room.
Chapman's tremendous acting chops imbue her character with a strength of purpose and a sense of survival that rises to the top. But, all of her skills aside, she cannot save this ill-begotten, mindless play that suggests the audience is as mindless or lacking in reason as an MTV reality show.
As Officer Rocky, Moses is threatening and physically imposing. He comes across as a dirty N.O.P.D. police officer, who is more than willing to cross the line as long as his palm is crossed with green. There were times, though, when the delivery of his lines were compromised, especially as the action peaked in the second act.
During the first reviewed perforance, there were times in the second act when the fight direction by Sean Boyd was so unrealistic as to generate what can only be described as a vacuum, as the mouths of disbelieving patrons dropped open and sucked the air out of the room. It can be said that the action improved and was tightened on the second viewing.
Thompson's character of Waylon, a sketch artist, is forced to prance around in his tidy whiteys and in various states of undress throughout the two acts. This makes it more likely that he is eventually sexually targeted by the policeman as a means of punishment and to threaten his wife with the possibility of rape.
As the officer's henchman Gumdrop, Story is used more for comic relief, although as things were heating up in the second act, he became somewhat more believable than the beer-guzzling stooge depicted at the outset of the play. A dedicated actor, Story does what he can to give sense and meaning to his character, but in the end, even his consummate skills are lacking due to a faulty script and lack of inspired direction.
Despite a better second viewing, which suggest problems were addressed, a more positive review for "Venom" cannot be freely given. It is surprising the Elm's artistic director Garrett Prejean, who has garnered more than a fair amount of success for his previous projects, should have put his full faith behind this very forced work. Oftentimes a world premiere does not become a sensation or a revelation, but is essentially a missed opportunity.
"Venom" runs Thursday through Saturday nights at the Elm Theatre, 220 Julia Street, just off S. Peters Street. The production is intended for mature audiences for adult situations and racially-charged language.