Back in December, there was a shining sliver of time when it looked like we—as individuals, as artists, as arts institutions—were forging a clear, or at least clear-ish, path forward.
Hundreds of people were back at work on live, in-person shows. A Christmas Carol burned bright at the Goodman. The Snow Queen got a shiny new reboot from a refreshed House. The Nutcracker, problematic as ever, nevertheless took root in the Joffrey’s sumptuous new home at the Lyric. And in an outcome not even the most optimistic of us dreamt of when its demise was announced in 2020, Mercury Theater Chicago delivered a Sister Act that reminded us all of the almighty power of a robust contralto to spark joy.
Next door to the singing nuns, the Venus Cabaret also reopened. Carved out of what used to be Cullen’s Bar and Grill (named for Michael Cullen, the original owner of the Mercury), Venus first opened in fall 2018 with a production of Pippin. But like every other theater in Chicago, it fell dark in 2020 while a planned production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was in rehearsals in the intimate space.
But now it’s back, a vision in lavender lighting. Such are the show-business powers of Chicago icon, singer-actor-cabaret star, and activist Honey West and Mercury Theater Chicago’s Christopher Chase Carter, who has been breathing life into the venue as its new artistic director. (In an interview with Reader theater and dance editor Kerry Reid in April 2021, Carter expressed the desire for the Venus to become the Chicago equivalent of New York’s famed 54 Below cabaret.)
On dark nights for the Mercury’s musicals, Carter and West decided there should be a chance for all kinds of performers to bring their lights next door.
“We want the Venus to be a place where you can just come in and join in the singing and the laughing. Chris and I both lived marginalized lives, and we know what it’s like to be starting out and we know what it’s like to be accomplished and doing this for decades,” West says.
“We want to create a space where artists can elevate their career. And let people know, ‘Hey, I’m not only an actor, I’m also a singer. Or a contortionist.’ We want to challenge the notion of what cabaret is,” Carter says.
December 12, when there was yet hope for a quasi-normal holiday season, the Venus was packed. The vax-checking was rigorous. ID, vax card, or a negative test, no exceptions. Most everybody inside wore masks, except when they were imbibing Sarah Wurz’s concoctions from the glimmering bar at the back of the room.
West and Carter set the tone in refurbishing the Venus into an intimate, 90-seat lounge with padded booths and cocktail tables curving adjacent and in front of the stage. It’s small enough to ensure there really are no bad seats, large enough to accommodate a roaring, rambunctious crowd to cheer on the artists.
West had several nonnegotiables in redesigning the space.
“After 30 years, I’ve sung in a lot of rooms. It’s made me a stickler for good sound. The acoustics are obviously important. I can be kind of obsessive about them,” West says. “Also padded seats. You’ve got to have padded seats. And you know what I really love? I love our lighting. I think it’s beautiful, all the violets and lavender.”
On the night of December 12, the Venus hosted the Trans Voices Cabaret, which has had previous iterations in Chicago in 2017 and 2019, at Stage 773 and Steppenwolf, respectively. The evening featured a (finally) consensual take on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a comic Hanukkah number that had the audience snort-laughing, and a poignant cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” among other delights.
“We’re looking to get people seen. To boost them to the next step. This is all about showcasing trans talent,” says producer Lars Ebsworth. Between numbers, Ebsworth proved a suave and joyful emcee, eventually announcing that Larry Trice was stepping into the producer’s role for future Trans Voices Cabaret endeavors. “Oh. By the way! This is my first show post-top surgery!” Ebsworth said, raising a glass to a cheering crowd.
It was a celebratory moment that also provided a stark reminder of how much things have changed, at least in some places, since West debuted her award-winning show A Taste of Honey in 1990. Then, West points out, the word “transgender” did not even exist and the binary was even more violently enforced. Certainly not many people were toasting anything outside it.
Before Chicago and transitioning, West performed on cruise ships and theme parks.
“When I started in Chicago there would be people who would say, ‘I don’t think anyone will take you seriously as an actress.’ Or, ‘We like you but what would people think?’ Meaning, ‘We won’t cast you because people will run screaming out of the theater,’” West says.
That’s an attitude trans artists still face, says Will Wilhelm, one of the Trans Voices Cabaret’s featured vocalists. “With the cabaret, I can do the song I want to do. That speaks to me. I don’t have to wait for someone to give it to me,” they say.
That’s precisely the vibe the Venus is going for, with all of its programming.
“We just want to give people permission and support to express who they are on our stage, without having to apologize or hide or explain yourself,” Carter says.
The ethos drives Carter and West’s regularly scheduled Sunday-Tuesday Dark Night Series programming that includes a monthly comedy night hosted by Chicago comic and bon vivant Scott Duff and a karaoke night. Ricky Harris, a rising force on the musical theater front, showcased his vocal chops January 16. Ronnie Marmo’s I’m Not a Comedian . . . I’m Lenny Bruce ran weekends after its initial run at the now-shuttered Royal George was cut short by COVID-19.
Still, since the early promise of December, West and Carter have been contending with COVID-induced closures, sometimes coming within hours of showtime. As it turns out, mid-December was arguably more of a blip than a harbinger of back-to-whatever-normal-passes-for. Breakthrough cases—fueled by variants that flourish in unvaccinated populations and spread rapidly—closed down every show listed in this piece. (The mainstage at the Mercury is scheduled to open Women of Soul on January 28. Marmo’s show is currently scheduled to come back to the Venus that same night, with karaoke on the calendar for Tuesday, February 1.)
West sounds singularly sanguine about the uncertainty.
“Every show is a blessing and every one could be our last for a while,” she says. “Theater is a tough business to begin with and because of that, we are resilient. We have no choice but to roll with the punches and assess every day what is the best course of action.”
Moreover, at 60, she’s lived through plague years before. It’s not an exaggeration to say AIDS wiped out a generation, at least, of extraordinary talent, with a woefully inadequate early response from the federal government.
“[The COVID pandemic] brings up a lot of trauma and memories of a very difficult and seemingly hopeless time,” West says. “Those of us who are still here are able to know the shoulders we are standing on and aspire to be those very shoulders that others will be standing on in the future.”
And if ticket sales are taking hit after hit, well, West isn’t hitting the panic button.
“I think all theaters have faced a decline in ticket sales. It’s understandable why people are cautious. Our relationship with our actors and patrons is constantly evolving. We maneuver through this time with an honest and thoughtful process of being as safe and adherent as we can, to make crossing our threshold the positive experience it has always been.”