In the right hands: twisted, dark comedy is intelligent, sexy
|Circle Theatre presents|
|Venus in Fur|
Review by Lauren Whalen
In the wrong hands, Venus in Fur could be a dangerous production. I’m not talking about dangerous for the audience. I’m referring to the actors and production crew. David Ives’ searing exploration of BDSM, gender and the theater is twisted, darkly funny and full to bursting with potential triggers. What’s refreshing about Circle Theatre’s production, even before the curtain goes up, is the company’s obvious care to ensure a safe space for staff, cast and to a certain extent, audience. Take a look at the program and you’ll see consultants on BDSM and gender listed among the typical production team positions such as set and costume designers. The letter-perfect lobby display features not only a history of Venus/Aphrodite, but a thorough explanation of BDSM, a tutorial on rope play and a paragraph on the Not in Our House organization for safety and fairness in Chicago theater. Aside from a few minor hiccups, the production itself is also a successful one. The small but mighty Circle Theatre does a bang-up job with its Venus in Fur, presenting a stellar interpretation of a most difficult play.
Venus in Fur has only two characters: playwright and first-time director Thomas (Zach Livingston) and wannabe actress Vanda (Arti Ishak). For Thomas, it’s the end of a very long day. He’s trying to find just the right leading lady for his latest play (also titled Venus in Fur), a literary adaptation that for Thomas, also digs deep personally. Thomas has seen no actress who will remotely suit, he’s late for dinner with his fiancée, and on top of all this, there’s a storm brewing outside. Enter Vanda, who blows in late, talks like a 1980’s Valley Girl and, in an interesting twist, bears the same name as Thomas’ lead character. She begs for a chance to read – after all, she’s made it through the rain and she’s brought a costume! Thomas reluctantly acquiesces, but has no idea what he’s in for, as Vanda reveals little by little that she’s not at all what she seems.
I saw Goodman Theatre’s Chicago premiere of Venus in Fur in 2014, and found the play hilarious, sexy and deeply disturbing. Ives has created two characters who thoroughly challenge themselves and each other physically, verbally and sexually. Venus in Fur isn’t for the faint of heart: it’s a 90-minute journey through an intellectual, dark oblivion. Both the play and the play-within-a-play are provocative, sensual and frightening. I eagerly accepted the assignment to review Circle Theatre’s production, but was very curious to see if they were up to the task.
As it happens, I didn’t need to worry. Besides taking the utmost care with the play – I shudder to think how the now-defunct Profiles Theatre could have potentially damaged an actress playing Vanda – director Charlotte Drover also highlights Ives’ dark comedy. Everything from the lightning storm to the sexual subjugation, aside from a few minor moments, feels incredibly authentic. Maya Michele Fein’s lighting and Domonic McDaye’s sound design both greatly contribute to the piece’s environment and mood, and Elsa Hiltner’s costumes are simple but beautiful. Sasha Smith designs both the production’s violence and intimacy, and the choreography is so skillful, it’s almost balletic. (One note to director Drover and scenic designer Emily Boyd: Venus in Fur is set in New York, not Chicago, as references to locations such as Screaming Mimi’s thrift store indicate.)
The two-person cast of Venus in Fur face some incredible obstacles. The script is incredibly difficult, both dark comedy and psychological thriller, with hefty doses of gender play and sadomasochism. Guided by Drover’s sure hand, both Livingston and Ishak do an incredible job navigating extraordinarily difficult material. Livingston makes a credible journey from blustery mansplainer (we all know at least one) to willingly helpless victim. And Ishak’s Vanda is nothing less than a tour de force, a babbling ditz who slowly but surely reveals her true colors – or does she?
Obviously, a lot of work went into this Venus in Fur. Sometimes showing one’s work precludes audience enjoyment of the production, but that’s not the case here. Aside from a few small flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed Circle Theatre’s provocative and stunning Venus in Fur and its themes of domination, submission and performance are still with me in the days after the premiere. What could have been disastrous in the wrong hands, is instead intelligent, artistic and sexy in the right ones.
Venus in Fur continues through March 19 at The Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2:30 pm. Tickets are $28, and are available online through BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at CircleTheatreChicago.org. (Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Cody Jolly Photography
behind the scenes
Charlotte Drover (director), Emily Boyd (scenic design), Maya Michele Fein (lighting design), Elsa Hiltner (costume design), Domonic McDaye (sound design), Shannon Melick (properties design), Sasha Smith (violence & intimacy design), Kelsey McGrath (dramaturg), Kyle Blair (dialect coach), Melanie Kulas (production stage manager), Bobby Arnold (rehearsal stage manager), Margi Hazlett (costume assistant), Trang Nguyen (lighting assistant), Mistress Jasmine (BDSM consultation), Parker Guidry (gender consultation), Alan Weusthoff (technical director), Kelsey McGrath, Nicholas Reinhart (lobby design), Bobby Arnold, Nicholas Reinhart (producers), Cody Jolly Photography (photographer)