WHRO's M.D. Ridge Reviews 'Venus in Fur'

The Virginia Stage Company’s production of Venus in Fur, which plays through March 19 at the Wells Theatre, is definitely an odd sort of play. Playwright David Ives makes it a play within a play, about an erotic novella written in 1870 by the eponymous Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

The contemporary play’s author and first-time director, Thomas Novacheck, has spent the whole luckless day auditioning actresses for the lead role, and rails about not finding one who can even pronounce “degradation.” Then Vanda comes hobbling in with a broken stiletto heel, late, but still determined that she should play the lead.

What happens in the next 90 minutes is anything but predictable. The two actors switch roles, genders, costumes, diction, personalities, historical periods, dominance and submissiveness, back and forth like the final set of a tennis match, but for a much more dangerous prize.

Charlotte Bydwell plays both the auditioning actress Vanda and the lead character—Wanda Dunayev, who enslaves the besotted noblemen Severin Kushemski. As the contemporary actress, she has drive, cunning, and an annoying voice and manner; she steamrolls the playwright into letting her audition, which means he has to read lines with her. As Vanda Dunayav, she flips into a commanding superiority and heightened diction—think Downton Abbey’s Maggie Smith fifty years younger.

Colin Ryan is Thomas, the playwright. His auditioning of Vanda quickly becomes something quite different: she’s auditioning him, asking questions about the play, dismissing it as porn, suggesting different approaches—basically changing everything to her own advantage. As the besotted nobleman Kushemski, he has to adopt the heightened diction of nobility and take on the vulnerability of his character, flipping in and out from contemporary playwright/director to period nobleman, from being the guy in charge to confessing his obsession with being mastered—and back again.

Both Bydwell and Ryan are excellent. His main drawback is that he’s so handsome, and in such a healthy, happy way, that his masochistic surrender is difficult to wrap one’s head around.

Director Jessica Holt has a firm grip on the play’s shifting realities, and two splendid actors to work with. Let’s face it, the Stage Company’s sets are almost always topnotch—and scenic designer Blair Melnik’s set turns the end-of- the-day rehearsal room into an end-of- the-world- as-we- know-it limbo. Costume designer Steven M. Rotramel gets full marks not only for what Vanda has on, but for her big bag into which all the costumes and props must be crammed and yet be easily accessible. (T’ain’t easy, McGee.)

Lynne Hartman’s lighting design is very workable—a little cheesy in the dénouement scene, but the scene itself sorta calls for that. Martha Goode’s sound design starts out annoyingly loud, but it calms down, and the thunder-and- lighting really sounds real.

And dialect coach Marianne Savell has her hands full, with both characters flipping from classic diction to demotic and back, as if blown by the wind. It’s crucial to the play’s progress, and it works!

Venus in Fur is played without intermission, an intelligent decision to maintain the concentration of both the audience and the actors.

The Virginia Stage Company also took the opportunity to trot out its 2017-2018 season—seven productions including its classic A Christmas Carol. Break a leg, y’all!

From the Other Side of the Footlights, I’m M.D. Ridge.