Review – Venus in Fur
You won’t find more exciting theater anywhere.By Kathie Raleigh, Woonsocket Call
“Venus in Fur,” now playing DownStage at 2nd Story Theatre, is a play about casting a play that’s been adapted from a book written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the guy whose name gave us the word sadomasochism.
As director Ed Shea said, “This isn’t your grandmother’s summer stock.”
What this production is, however, is about 75 minutes of mesmerizing theater that not only keeps you wondering just where it’s going to end up but also has a benchmark-setting performance by Lara Hakeem. It’s dark, magnetic, even funny – a show you don’t want to miss.
The playwright, David Ives, takes a mundane occurrence and turns it into a brilliantly contrived piece of theater. The story begins as a frazzled director, Thomas, laments in a telephone conversation about his inability to cast the lead in his adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs.” He bemoans the dearth of talent and lack of understanding for Vanda, the woman at the center of the tale from 1870.
It’s late in the day, but that doesn’t stop one desperate actor – ironically named Vanda Jordan — from talking her way into a try-out. This loud and brash woman seems all wrong for the part, but Thomas agrees to read lines with her, thinking it’s the best way to get rid of her.
But when Vanda becomes “Vanda,” everything changes – and Hakeem begins her magic. Her voice becomes a sweet, cultured whisper. Her demeanor is demure but hints of other things. She’s perfect for the role, and we are as startled as Thomas.
The more they read lines, the more Vanda and Thomas get into their characters. Suddenly, they’ll stop and speak as “themselves,” but after a time, it’s harder and harder to discern reality from the play within the play. Tension begins to build. This is not about porn; it’s about power.
As director, Shea uses his characteristically pin-point timing to make transitions as quick as a snap of the fingers. Funny exchanges morph directly into darkness, sometimes creepiness, and back again.
Hakeem is positively mercurial. Her performance as Vanda the actor is exactly right; so is her “Vanda,” and she switches seamlessly. She is amazing.
Richard Derry as Thomas necessarily is the ash-covered coal to Hakeem’s blazing fire, but he definitely smolders, and his reactions to the volatile Vanda are on target.
Because Vanda arrives at her audition with a bag full of costumes, costume designer Ron Cesario should take a bow for everything from a lace dress to a leather bustier. Interestingly, Thomas’ clothing is as muted as his personality until he dons a colorful frockcoat to play his 19th century character.
Max Ponticelli does great work on the set and lighting, capturing the essence of a cold and messy audition room and staging the proverbial “dark and stormy night” as the play begins.
All these elements – the play, performances, direction, costumes and set – will keep you talking about this production for weeks. You won’t find more exciting theater anywhere.