Thoughts & Musings

My dominatrix lady

Lara Hakeem sizzles on stage at 2nd Story Theatre.

by Dave Christner, Newport Mercury
  • 17th June 201517/06/15
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Id is on the prowl and deviancy is the name of the game in 2nd Story Theatre’s sizzling production of “Venus in Fur” by David Ives, running through June 28 and continuing July 23 through August 2 in Warren. This Ives’ piece tells the story of Thomas (Richard Derry), a contemporary New York writer/director desperate to cast the female lead in his stage adaptation of a 19th century Austrian novel that explores the complexity of a sadomasochistic relationship.

Set designer Max Ponticelli’s interpretation of a sparse audition space in a former sweatshop somewhere in the city is where the action takes place. A few steel folding chairs are strewn about a large room with a skylight through which flashes of lightning periodically illuminate the set. There is a table to stage right littered with pages from a script and another table and pot of coffee situated upstage.

After sitting through dozens of tedious auditions, Tom’s casting problem is at first aggravated and then apparently solved with the appearance of Vanda Jordan (Lara Hakeem), a helter-skelter actress on the verge of hysteria or worse. Coincidentally (or not), Vanda is the name of the character that Tom needs to cast in his play; however, the strung out Vanda that shows up hours late for her audition is a far cry from the cultivated “lady” he had envisioned for his dominatrix.

Having come in out of the rain with a bag of costumes and other tricks, Vanda reveals her desperate need for work when she removes her raincoat and reveals the body of a goddess adorned in a black leather corset, fishnet stockings, a dog collar and spike heels, all courtesy of costume designer Ron Cesario. In spite of her appearance, Tom refuses to let her audition for the part, thinking she lacks the requisite sophistication and maturity for the role of his Vanda. Another problem is that the reader for the male role has gone home.

Vanda pleads for Tom to read the other part, that of Kushemski; Tom finally gives in and fills Vanda in on a few details about the play and the characters before they begin. Inexplicably, and to Tom’s surprise, Vanda already has a copy of his script in her bag and knows a good deal about the play and novel from which it was adapted.

From the moment she speaks her first line of the script with a perfect accent, the Bronx Vanda is transformed into Vanda von Dudayev, a cultured European woman of substance. Hakeem handles this transformation seamlessly, taking on her new persona as easily as taking in a breath. And then just as quickly she switches back to the Bronx Vanda with a spontaneous, “Yeah, what is that?” when she hits a line that makes no sense to her in the script. Hakeem is an amazing actress; the role of Vanda gives her the ideal role in which to showcase her many talents.

Tom is as stunned by Vanda’s transformation as the audience is; he encourages her to read on in spite of his misgivings about doing his part poorly. Seeing that he is no match for her and knowing he has found his Vanda, he wants to quit. But she won’t let him.

Vanda encourages Tom to become Count Kushemski, the long-suffering nobleman who has become a slave to Venus in Fur — or Aphrodite in spike heels, if you will. The roles are reversed and suddenly Vanda is in charge, playing the dominant role both in the play and in the play within the play.

Derry handles his transformation with more conscious effort that does Hakeem, but that is by design. Tom is an analytical character, and Derry plays him perfectly. Cool and aloof in the beginning, Derry’s portrayal of Tom’s coming apart in an effort to extricate himself from his “enlightened” view of women at the end of the play is a beautiful thing.

Director Ed Shea gets exactly what he wants out of each actor in “Venus in Fur,” making the stage and Ives’ characters sizzle with the heat of anticipated pleasure and pain. If you’re looking to turn a hot summer night into a hotter summer night, this is the show for you!

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