Venus in Fur is a complex play within an even more complex play. The story begins simply: director Thomas Novachek (Joe Mucciolo) has adapted nineteenth century writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs (the 1870 novel which explored sado-masochism) for the stage, and is desperate to find the right actress to play the lead role when in bursts young actress Vanda Jordan (Anna Deblasio), forty-five minutes late for the audition but making an immediate impression nonetheless.
Vanda plays dumb to get the proverbial foot in the door, but she’s by no means dumb: she’s calculating and an astute judge of character. And it seems she’s done her homework, knowing not only the original play and its origins, but the young director and his bland, regimented life.
Deblasio’s Vanda is almost schizophrenic in her transitions from Vanda, the conniving actress, to Sacher-Masoch’s aristocratic Wanda Von Dunayev of the nineteenth century. Her Austrian accent is impeccable; even her posture seems to shift imperceptibly, as Vanda/Wanda slides from one century to the next, sometimes mid-sentence. There are a few times this incarnation falters, yet overall Deblasio keeps the audience guessing as to Wanda’s intentions.
Mucciolo’s Thomas is a good foil to Deblasio’s Vanda as the playwright reads character Severin von Kushemski’s lines. Looking like a young Sigmund Freud with his trimmed beard and glasses, Thomas had opened the play with his back to us. It had the effect of making the character unknowable from the beginning, yet his slow slide into the persona of masochist Kushemski is still wrenching to watch.
The actors are perfectly matched: physically, Mucciolo towers over the diminutive Deblasio, but she’s got the more dynamic lines and is believable in her transition from sycophant to the virtual director of the final scenes. She cajoles and taunts, he alternately blusters and submits.
David Ives has written a swordfight of a play, and fortunately for Compass Rose, both actors have equally sharp rapiers.
Director Lucinda Merry-Browne has little by way of space to work in, yet the action is well timed, well blocked, and never becomes stagnant. And that’s rather remarkable, given that this play wasn’t in the company’s original lineup this season. Compass Rose was to open the 2018 season with The Understudy, a comedy that begins with a gun being waved at the audience. In a compassionate response to the tragic events of the shootings in Annapolis earlier this year in which five journalists at the Capitol Gazette newspaper were murdered, the company made the decision to produce Venus in Fur instead.
Venus in Fur
closes November 4, 2018
Details and tickets
Theater has always been something of a movable feast, beginning with roving bands of troupes in the Middle Ages; even Shakespeare’s original company traveled to the outskirts of London to find an audience in the beginning. Yet nowadays most companies need a semi-permanent roof over their heads if they’re to keep subscribers happy and attract new customers. In addition to changing the first show of the season, Compass Rose hasn’t been able to move into their new space yet. So the dual combination of changing plays and a less than desirable temporary space could have spelled disaster for the production.
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Thus we find ourselves at Annapolis’ Country Inn and Suites, in an event room directly beneath the lobby, Compass Rose’s rented space for the duration of this production. There’s no raised stage, and just the back wall of the room to indicate setting. Surprisingly, the playing space is just about perfect for this piece, which relies not on visuals but on the interplay between the actors in this ouroboros of a play.
The audience doesn’t fare as well. Unless you’re in the first row, you’ll only see the actors from the waist up, and not at all if they’re sitting down. And the crucial fight scene, as staged by fight choreographer James Bunzli, is almost comically unbelievable. Overall, though, the production gets to the meat of the matter, and delivers an evening charged with emotional and sexual complexity.
This is a good production of a very good play, and worthy of a real theatrical environment. Still, it’s worth the effort to see Venus in Fur at its imperfect temporary space: every ticket sold brings good theater closer to home.
Venus in Fur by David Ives . Directed by Lucinda Merry Browne . Cast: Anna Deblasio as Vanda, Joe Mucciolo as Thomas . Fight Choreographer James Bunzli . Production Supervisor and Costume Designer: Mary Ruth Cowgill . Stage Manager: Rachel A. Walsh . Produced by Compass Rose Theater . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.