Printable CopyVENUS IN FUR
STARC Productions
Bakehouse Theatre
Until 17 Apr 2021

Review by John Wells

It’s been a long day for Thomas Novachek. He’s a playwright and theatre director - and, let’s face it, probably a genius - but as the day winds down, he’s frustrated and dispirited. He’s been cooped up in a run-down rehearsal room, auditioning actress after actress for his new adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s nineteenth century novella, “Venus in Furs”. But not one of the many hopeful New York starlets are up to his exacting standards. The rain pours down and Thomas prepares to head home.

As lightning flashes outside, he is interrupted by Wanda: scatty, babbling, rain-drenched and sweary, she is desperate to be auditioned and pleads with Thomas to just let her read a few pages. What begins as a cursory few moments between a grumbling director and a frenzied young actress quickly turn into a dangerously seductive psychosexual tug-of-war. Thomas is annoyed, then intrigued, then astounded by Wanda: she claims to have only skimmed a few lines of the play, but how does she know her part by heart, and how has she obtained a copy of his whole play? Why is she so well-prepared with not just a flowing vintage gown, but a vampy dog-collar, corset and bustier? And how does she know so much about Thomas and his wife? Wanda slips easily into the imperious, aristocratic role of Vanda Dunayev, enthralling Thomas, who haltingly reads the part of the submissive Kushemski. There is danger, role reversal, seduction (and a riding crop) ahead, as Thomas unwittingly submits to a very powerful force indeed.

At its best, “Venus in Fur” is a delicious, stimulating and provocative play. Playwright David Ives writes with telling precision and acerbic humour, and his observations about the inequalities and indignities of the theatre are powerful. The meta-theatrical play-within-a-play-based-on-a-novel structure is a useful device and allows for sharp mood changes and smart conflicts as the two characters move in between their roles. But the text becomes repetitive and, despite the present relevance of the nasty and abusive nature of the casting couch, the play feels dated. (It was first produced in 2010.) There is something slightly off-kilter about a play which excoriates the theatre’s power and gender imbalance but requires the female lead to spend much of the show in a bra, g-string and suspender belt. Ives is clearly trying to examine this dynamic, but it sits somewhat uneasily.

This is a highly entertaining ride. Tony Knight’s direction is fast-paced and natural, allowing the two actors to give committed, confident performances. Stefanie Rossi is faultless as Wanda (and/or Vanda): gamine, sexy, funny, intense and full of sensual menace. Rossi shows both a mysterious vulnerability and a brutal zeal. She switches between characterisations with skill and precision, being both hilarious and frightening. Thomas is not as complex a character as Wanda, but Marc Clement gives a strong and layered portrayal (with an excellent accent as if he’d just stepped off the set of a Woody Allen film), without quite nailing Thomas’ neediness and sense of entitlement.

Starc Productions’ show is great fun: relevant, caustic with a powerful, bouncing energy.