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Archive for October, 2015

Venus In Fur
by David Ives
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
September 25, 2015

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The theme for West End Players Guild’s newest season is “Battle of the Sexes”. This idea is well reflected in the season’s first offering, David Ives’s dark comedy Venus In Fur. With sharp dialogue, dynamic staging, and extremely strong performances by the two leads, this is a mysterious, intriguing, alternately funny and disturbing play that’s sure to provoke a lot of thought and conversation.

The play has a theatrical conceit with occasional mysterious and possibly even supernatural elements. The set-up is that an ambitious playwright and director, Thomas (Chris Jones), is conducting auditions for the role of a character called Vanda in his adaptation of a provocative 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher Masoch (from whose name the word “masochism” is derived). Thomas is exasperated because all of the actresses he’s seen are unsuitable in various ways, particularly in being either too modern or too immature, or both. He’s about to pack up for the day when a quirky character also called Vanda (Paula Stoff Dean) shows up and wants to audition. This Vanda is crass, forgetful, confrontational, and seemingly just as unsuitable as the previous auditionees, until she persuades Thomas to let her read for part and proves herself surprising in more ways than one. As the audition continues, it becomes clear that Vanda isn’t exactly who she had claimed to be, as she challenges Thomas concerning his very reasons for writing and staging this play, and their conversations grow more personal and the lines between the actors and characters become increasingly less clear.

This is an intense play, with an interesting tonal shift from basically wacky comedy at the beginning to a much darker tone as the story progresses. The characters are the story, really, with their continued challenges and questioning of each other adding to the mystery. The ending is somewhat confusing and ambiguous, but that’s likely deliberate. It’s all about the interaction between the two leads, as they shift in and out of character while reading the play, and it’s all so dynamically staged that even though the play runs about 100 minutes with no intermission, the story never gets boring.

The casting is absolutely essential in a play like this, as is the chemistry between the performers. This production gets both of those elements right. As the mysterious, initially flighty but also very much in control Vanda, Dean gives the best performance I’ve seen from her.  This is a role that requires a strong stage presence, excellent comic and dramatic skills, and the ability to transition between different characters at the drop of a hat. Dean accomplishes all those tasks with supreme proficiency, and Jones is an excellent match for her as the conflicted but driven Thomas. He proves an able sparring partner for Dean’s Vanda, and their chemistry is positively electric, as well.

The technical elements of this production are fairly basic, but well done. Nathan Schroeder’s lighting, Chuck Lavazzi’s sound, and especially Tracy Newcomb-Margrave’s costumes are all excellent. The only major technical problem had to do with the air conditioner in West End’s performance space, which was loud and was an occasional distraction. Otherwise, this is a well-realized production, effectively recreating the backstage atmosphere required for the play.

Venus in Fur is a provocative, sharply written, thought-provoking two-person play. It’s definitely on the odd and mysterious side, plot wise, but it’s an especially strong showcase for actors.  I’d never seen this show before, and West End’s production strikes me as an excellent introduction. It’s intense, funny, bizarre, and extremely well cast. There are only two performances left, and it’s well worth checking out.

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s Venus in Fur runs at Union Avenue Christian Church until October 4th, 2015.

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