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|A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
Transit Of Venus
Rob Odorisio's metaphoric set is a visual omen of the struggle that is at the heart of this American premiere of Canadian playwright Maureen Hunter's Transit of Venus. A needlepoint frame and the petit point covered chairs of the otherwise drab tan sitting room in a seventeenth century French country estate signal the primary occupation of the female occupants (Marin Hinkle, Maryann Urbano and Pamela Payton-Wright) of the household -- and to put first things first, these women are the stellar magnets drawing you into this historical romance-cum-astrological adventure, (more a misadventure) both in fact as in this faction.) White sail cloth, a sundial and, along with other astronomical accouterments, a huge ship's clock (cleverly doubling as a doorway), overarch these symbols of domesticity. It is a room that evokes both the connection and the distance between the world of home and hearth and the world of exploration and adventure.
And if you don't immediately catch this link between the confinement of seventeenth century country life and the larger universe that beckons, director John Rando quickly sets the tone by having the central character (Michel R. Gill) burst into the quiet room out of a dark and rainy night. He proposes a toast to his servant (Jason Butler Harner), not to their return to hearth and home, but "to Venus and the secrets she will share with me." Clearly, this is a toast by a man whose eye is trained on distant horizons with the satisfactions derived from ordinary pleasures a postscript to a more important prime of life.
The home into which we have been invited is that of a fictionalized character modeled after the real-life astronomer Guillaume Le Gentil de la Galasiere who devoted eleven years of his life to observing the transits of Venus across the disk of the Sun. The Le Gentil of this play is attached to three women: his mother Madame Sylvie (Payton-Wright), his former mistress and household employee Margot (Urbano), and Margot's fifteen-year-old daughter Celeste (Marin Hinkle).
Le Gentil, a typical macho male of his day, has had his share of non-celestial adventures, which include Margot whom he has discarded for her nubile daughter. For all his speechifying about science as a means of charting man's relationship to God, it is Ms. Hinkle's Celeste and not Venus who lights up the evening. Her transit, at least as depicted here, is far more interesting and fully realized than the subtext about the scientific charting of Venus. It is a transit that takes her from quivering virgin to a woman no longer willing to "be stuck in a fluffy gown waiting for a man who is always late" and who finally takes control of her own life. It is a tour de force performance that saves this too talky affair from falling under the rubric of dramatized historical romance novel.
While the character and portrayal of Celeste is the play's Northern Star, the other players in this solar system lend strong support. Ms. Urbano, who as the cast-aside mistress could easily come across as a character out of a soap opera, invests her role with poignancy and dignity. Her Margot accepts what she must and demands what she can. She is a woman of her time who despite the awful compromise she must make has us convinced that she would and could be a woman of our time., Ms. Payton-Wright does full justice to the role of Le Gentil's eccentric and decidedly cynical mother. While she is given some of the play's smartest lines, her role as written by the playwright unfortunately fades out disappointingly in the second act.
Jason Butler Harner as Demarais the servant, who unlike Celeste has a chance to accompany Le Gentil on his first voyage, is also excellent. The scene when he warns Celeste that Le Gentil is a man who'll sometimes exceed her expectations and describes to her how he has learned that the life for him is that of "the little people" is particularly moving. Demarais and the three women are strong solid counterpoints to Le Gentil's attempt to convince us that his inability to enter into a real rather than fantasy love relationship is justified by his sense that he's destined to find answers to man's relationship with God through science. Michel Gill, while passionate and attractive enough, is hobbled by too much speechifying to come across as quite the irresistible sun to keep these women, (or the audience), enthralled by him for most of the play's eleven-year span.
All told the strengths of Transit of Venus -- a fascinating era for a conflict that resonates through the ages, fine staging and direction, and the exhilarating performance of Marin Hinkle -- almost but don't quite outweigh its chief weaknesses. The excessive speechifying weighs down much of the terrific dialogue. The fact that the central character is not sympathetic would be less bothersome if Ms. Hunter's ending had stuck just a little more closely to the facts. In view of the re-imagining of LeGentil's private life, breaking what was actually one long eleven-year journey into two makes dramatic sense. However, some sort of an epilogue pointing to the truth of some of Madame Sylvie's pithy observations about life -- ("we rise up at a banquet table and drop dead of hunger". . ."destiny seems to get up very early and goes to bed late at night") -- would have been more credible. As it is, the voyage we share with these five characters has the look of a banquet but sends us away from the table less than fully satisfied.
The evocative set design is given strong support by Dan Kotlowitz's lighting, Murell Horton's exquisitely appropriate costumes and Scott Killian's original music. And so, on balance, Transit of Venus is in spite of its flaws, substantial summer fare that may well travel to other American stages. In his excellent program notes for Transit of Venus Steven Samuels mentions the surprise best selling book Longitude to explain the almost romantic appeal of the times when "the correlations between what we observe empirically and what we construct theoretically can be more easily grasped."