TheatreLAB and Yes, And! Entertainment present a sexy, sordid and hilarious ‘Venus in Fur’
If you have the opportunity to see a play written by David Ives, try not to miss it. He is one of the most creative playwrights working today. He writes smart literary plays. Venus in Fur is a great example.
Venus in Fur is a two actor play-within-a-play inspired by the 1870 novel Venus in Furs by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and happens to be the novel that inspired the term Masochism.
Although the play concerns sex and is very funny, it is not a sex comedy. It delves into dark passages, shameful erotic desires and sexual manipulations. It’s very juicy stuff. Matt Shofner deliciously manipulates the story for maximum effect. He uses a very small square of stage and boxes his actors and us in it. He gives his actors license to explore every inch of it. He pushes his actors to explore the parts of themselves that give greatest resonance to what they say and how they act. He is fortunate to have two such talented actors and I’m sure he gave them a free hand to create but you can tell there is a sharp eye keeping the temperature well controlled.
James Ricks plays Thomas Novachek, a playwright/director who has adapted Sacher-Masoch’s novel for the stage. Thomas has held auditions for his leading lady and has sent them all away I disappointment.
Thomas is ready to leave the audition space when suddenly the weather turns wild, the thunder claps and the lightning strikes and in barrels an actress like a hurricane, railing against the weather, the subway system, the perverts who cop a feel on the train and her bad luck, hardly noticing that there is anyone else in the room. We meet Vanda and at first we think she’s just cooky. She apologizes and sweet talks Thomas until he gives up and lets her audition just to get rid of her.
We get a whiff of something weird going on. The character that she has come to audition is also named Vanda. Then she pulls out a full script of this play which has not been released, and we see that it is worn and thumbed through many times. When she starts to read she is letter perfect. How is this possible? Thomas is suspicious but intrigued. Vanda turns out to be very good. Thomas is coaxed into reading with her and that’s where we see his defenses start to melt as he takes on the role and the relationship that he himself wrote.
The play concerns a nobleman named Kushemski who was treated as a boy to some “pain as pleasure” activities in his youth with a certain “aunt.” Vanda Dunayev is the young woman Kushemski meets at a resort with whom he further investigates some psychosexual fun. Let the games begin!
“Basically it’s S-and-M porn,” Vanda accuses, making Thomas defend the literary importance of not only his work but Sacher-Masoch’s novel.
Thomas is totally enamored and slowly subjugated to Vanda. He gets more and more excited by the human Vanda’s immersion into the role, and when she carries that exuberance over to real life, Thomas can’t help but let her take charge and involve Thomas in a fantasy scene where the goddess Venus toys with Kushemski. “Imagine me naked,” she says while lying on the divan. It is here we, as the audience know that the tables have turned.
If I give any more away, I might overheat, so I’ll stop. This 90 minutes of cat and mouse sexual role play goes by so fast you forget how long you’ve been watching. You feel like a voyeur, ashamed to be so interested in their dance of dominance and submission. You thrill in the confusion caused by the characters going from life to script, merging the two so sometimes you can’t tell what’s true and what’s not.
Ricks and Roop are superb. More than being highly skilled they commit to every moment, depending on each other for balance, tone and tension. TheatreLAB is one of the best venues for this kind of “in your face” theatre because the acting space is so limited and the audience so close, there is nowhere to hide and no opportunity to rest. This is not a deficiency. This demands the very best from all concerned. You either deliver or you embarrass yourself.
Ms. Roop has the showier part. Vonda is crass and kooky and then fiercely dominating. Thomas is perhaps the more vulnerable part. The pompous playwright is broken down step by step, disavowing the material at one point (I’m not the author, just the adapter”) and ultimately falling prey to his shameful but irresistible desires. Both parts have an extremely high level of difficulty.
Maggie Roop has made a name for herself in this town as an accomplished comedic actress. This role gives her the opportunity to dig into the darker corners of her gifts. Her Vonda is an unknowable creature full of mysteries and agendas. Roop toys with us. When we think she’s fighting the feminist agenda she seduces us with contempt and world weary spite. She has done and seen more than any human should. You feel that the only thing that gets through the scar tissue is the delight of sublimating this man’s soul. A female “Faust” tale, “if you will.”
James Ricks is best known about town as a fine director, but he’s just as fine an actor. His Thomas is pompous, officious, intrigued, excited, lascivious and pathetically needy. Ricks digs deep to explore every man’s fantasies and fears. His Thomas is all men. His descent into submission is hard fought and Ricks stubbornly holds onto every shred of pride until his uncontrollable desires are sucked up into Vonda’s vortex of vivacious titillation.
I’ve never seen a more sensuous moment on the Richmond stage as when Ricks dresses his mistress with dominatrix boots. The oh-so-slow zipping provides a turgid audience response.
TheatreLAB has slowly come into its own with splendid production values. The scenic design by Adam Dorland is masterful. His angular stage confines and defines the sordid audition room. His panoramic cityscape outside the window is marvelously detailed and moodily evocative. Michael Jarret does his best work in the Basement with this show, having the tools he needs and the creativity to exploit them. Combined with Joey Luck’s sound design they provide tension, disruption and Olympian interference into this mystical tale. Costumer Emily Atkins provides a magical bag of tricks stuffing Vonda’s totes with creatively appropriate period frocks, jackets and leather goods.
Venus in Fur provides a seriously smart and very funny stage seminar on the destabilizing nature of sexual desire. It is an exhausting journey into the base nature and relationship of humans to the things they most desire. This is an experience you can only get in the theatre. It is more than enough incentive to get out of the house and walk down the basement steps at Broad and Third Street.
Venus in Fur runs now through May 7th at TheatreLab’s The Basement. You can scoop tickets here!
By combining the color drained world of 1984 with the color saturated carnival atmosphere of Ubu, Ricks finds dual despotic regimes that offer the same soulless outcomes.September 26, 2016
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