So, I have a soapbox to stand on regarding this particular production, and a finger to wag while I’m up there. But let’s stick a pin in that because before I do I’d prefer to assess Virginia Stage Company’s production of Venus in Fur on its individual merits. Because it’s good. Very, very good.
The play, written by David Ives, one of the under-recognized geniuses of modern theatre, debuted off Broadway in 2010. It went on to premier on Broadway in 2011, garnering multiple award nominations. None of those awards were for the script itself, however, which was an oversight because this intelligent and taught coil of sexual suspense is quite a mouthful for two actors to chew on. And chew Colin Ryan and Charlotte Bydwell do, as they coyly probe the depths of each other’s libidos and explore the dominant/submissive aspects of romantic, sexual, and artistic relationships. I couldn’t believe this riveting and compelling one-act comedy was over as quickly as it was.
The play was also adapted into a film in 2012 by Roman Polanski, who, predictably (and inappropriately), cast his wife in the lead role and brushed aside the script’s glib and dark humor in favor of a brooding analysis of its admittedly deeply intellectual themes. These are both things Polanski is wont to do, and which I believe rendered the material an injustice, one mindfully avoided by Jessica Holt, director of VSC’s current production. Holt keeps the proceedings light, funny, sexy, and above all brisk, which I’m convinced is the way in which playwright Ives intended for it to be presented.
Colin Ryan as Thomas, the writer/director of a new play that he has obsessively researched and for which he is now holding auditions, draws us in with his everyman appeal. Maybe a bit of a snob, but one that we can definitely relate to. Countering Ryan is Charlotte Bydwell as Vanda, the brash and flighty actress who stumbles into her audition hours late, but is nevertheless perfect for the role. Perhaps too perfect…
Bydwell perhaps doesn’t reach quite as many levels as might have more effectively driven home the power of the character she plays, but her magnetism is undeniable throughout, and the chemistry between her and Ryan more than carries the show.
The physical aspects of the production are very well realized by Blair Mielnik’s scenic design, Lynne M. Hartman’s lighting design, and Martha Goode’s sound design, all of which work in seamless tandem to create a meticulous realism while also heightening the mood. Local designers take note: a truly brilliant integration of set and lights is on display in this production. It is also apparent that costume designer Steven M. Rotramel had a fair bit of fun with this show, which calls for contemporary attire as well as period dresses and frock coats, and a bit of kinky dominatrix gear to boot.
All of foregoing having been said, let’s come back around to that soap box I mentioned before. So VSC’s production of Venus in Fur is indeed a good show, but is it a necessary show? I ask because it’s already been seen in our area in the recent past; as recently as 2014, when it was produced by the Generic Theater. And that wasn’t the first time VSC has drank another area theatre’s milkshake. Back in 2007, VSC mounted a production of To Kill A Mockingbird, just a year after the Little Theatre of Norfolk did the same show (and did it better). And this begs the question: is VSC trying to show up the area’s non-professional theatres by bringing their regional theatre resources to bear on shows that have recently been produced elsewhere, or is VSC simply not aware of what’s going on in the wider theatrical community? And considering that VSC could very easily position itself as a leader and mentor to the smaller theatres, is either acceptable? Hampton Roads is unusual in that no other market in which I’ve worked boasts as direct a conduit between non-professional and professional theatre as Hampton Roads can, but that conduit sadly remains largely unused. And maybe I’d be singing a different tune if VSC’s production of Venus in Fur had been accompanied by some sort of educational or cross-promotional partnership with the Generic, but the program and press release contain no indications that such was the case.
Okay, rant over. Bottom line: Venus in Fur is a good show. But then, The Amazing Spider-Man was a good movie. My enjoyment of both however was tempered by the fact that they came too quickly on the heels of their predecessors. If you’re gonna put on a show – even one as good as this – that eats somebody else’s lunch, do it for a reason.
Venus in Fur runs thru March 19 at the Wells Theatre. Tues 7:00pm, Wed, Thurs, Fri 8:00pm, Sat 4:00pm & 8:00pm, Sun 2:00pm. Call (757) 627-1234 or click here to reserve your seats. And be sure to let us know in the comments what you think of the show (any version of it you’ve seen)!
ED NOTE: Keen-witted readers have alerted me to the fact that LTN’s production of To Kill A Mockingbird was in 2004, not 2006 as I indicate above. (I think my point is still valid though.) Also, I misused the word taught, which is in fact the past tense of teach. It should have read “taut coil of sexual suspense.” Thanks for keeping me on my toes, guys!