Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ demands your attention at Main Street Theater

These two views, two ways of seeing things, from the two characters in David Ives’ funny and frightful, playful and disturbing “Venus in Fur” now on stage at Houston’s Main Street Theater, are at the core of this powerful, if small-scale, production.

Featuring only two characters—Thomas (Guy Roberts), a frustrated director of his own adaptation of the novella “Venus in Furs” by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch whose name gives us the term “masochism,” and Vanda (Jessica Boone), a foul-mouthed actress who arrives unscheduled to audition for the play—the show starts as a comic romp of mismatched figures. But the audition takes on a life of its own as Thomas and Vanda act out scenes from Thomas’s script and begin to improvise new ones. Things become complicated, creating what Thomas, reading a line in his script, describes as “chaos, thunderbolts, lightning!”

From comic romp, this play-within-a-play expands to include romantic seduction, a battle between the sexes, and a struggle for power that strips Thomas to his hidden and suppressed core while revealing Vanda as mysterious and inexplicable as desire itself.

And as the play finally focuses attention on the nature of desire it does so by also being about theater itself. Watching two stage actors play characters who then act out scenes from a play, the playwright invites audiences to see theater from both sides of the curtain and offers a glimpse at how the successful creation on stage of a fictional world demands–or at least touches– the truth in the actors who make that fiction seem real.

“Venus in Fur” is a complex work perfectly suited to Main Street’s intimate venue—a space that Guy Roberts, doing double duty as the play’s director, uses to maximum effect. He keeps the play’s simple set and props in motion, using shifts of furniture to reflect shifts in power relations and tone with even the most insignificant items carrying extra weight as when Vanda thrashes her collapsed cheap umbrella as she first enters foreshadowing turmoil later in the play as emotional shields shred and crumble.

The lighting by J. Mitchell Cronin—from the flashes of lightning that precede the first entrance to the fading spot at the end—is highly effective, too. Not only does it mark shifts in atmosphere, but it startles and shatters the action on stage.

But the actors are the true glory of this production. Jessica Boone as Vanda manages to shock the audience by her ability to shift from the flustered young would-be actress who first walks on stage to the powerful dominatrix she seems at its end. She creates a woman who could well be “Venus,” the personification of love and object of desire in all its many forms. She is matched by Roberts whose Thomas twists, turns, and slowly dissolves as he first seeks what he desires and ends by seeking to know what it is he desires.

Running briskly without intermission for just under two hours, this production propels the audience through a spectrum of emotions. At times convulsed with laughter, at others they are likely to be repulsed or shocked or moved or all three at once. Though never tawdry or salacious, this is not for the dogmatic or easily offended, and it demands close attention. Like the characters, the audience is asked to let go and allow the script to take them on an unexpected journey to a place they would not have thought to go.

In short, it is a night of exciting theater, well worth wrapping up and making the drive to Main Street’s Rice Village Theater. “Venus in Fur”, like Venus in the night sky, is here for a limited run. Don’t miss it.

Venus in Fur runs through January 24 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd., in Rice Village.

 

 

Robert Donahoo

Robert Donahoo began to review plays while an undergraduate and has maintained an interest in theater ever since. Currently, he is a professor of English at Sam Houston State University where he specializes in 20th Century American Literature, Literature of the American South, and Drama. He has published numerous academic essays, co-directed an NEH Summer Institute, and is currently co-editing the volume, APPROACHES TO TEACHING FLANNERY O'CONNOR for the Modern Language Association.

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