The Rite of Venus: Labor of Love Turns Ritual Into Rock Opera

It succeeds not only because of this devotion, but because of the brains behind it.

People in the arts use the word "risk" a lot—in newspaper reviews, grant applications, season brochures—but what they mean, almost always, is financial risk: the possibility that a certain project might not make as much money as planned. Actual artistic risk—decisions that carry a genuine threat of failure—is a rare thing to see. Here are a few of the very real risks Eleusyve Productions takes, and pulls off, in its staging of Aleister Crowley's The Rite of Venus: Not only enlisting a cast of amateurs, but asking them all to sing—setting the Rite to music, every word (and not stinting on the harmony and counterpoint, either). Giving Venus (Melissa Holm) a long solo dance. Depicting, allusively, an orgy. Presenting a same-sex tango as a sort of stylized fight scene. That first risk is probably unavoidable. Crowley (1875–1947)—writer, occultist, gadfly—wrote Venus as one of a cycle of seven Rites of Eleusis, stagings of which are always going to be labors of love by enthusiasts; Crowley is not likely to end up part of the Seattle Rep's season alongside Wendy Wasserstein and August Wilson. He filled these mystical rituals with page after page of hothouse verse (above all, Eleusyve's performance is a triumph of memorization), and making them work as theater is a challenge. I've seen several local productions of these Rites over the years, and this one is by far the most elaborate and most successful. Those two attributes probably go hand in hand; if you don't give a project like this your full and serious devotion, it'll never work. Yet overreach one inch in the direction of pretentiousness, and you've got Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge" on your hands. Eleusyve's Venus succeeds not only because of this devotion but because of the brains behind it. The blocking and choreography (credited to Javarah, with direction by Andrew Bryce) are smartly arranged for maximum effect with minimum effort. The movement for the seven ornately costumed, belly-dancing Acolytes, for example, is uncomplicated but unfailingly lovely. Rippling long, flowing silken banners to create the effect of waves never fails to look great onstage, but when the banners are filled with flower petals tossed in the air, the result is beautiful out of all proportion to the difficulty of execution. Jon Sewell's attractive score combines the flavors of trippy Bay Area acid rock and the biblical pop musicals of the '70s: Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar. The production's only wink at the audience comes at the very end: The curtain-call music is Queen's "Somebody to Love."

 
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