REVIEW: Venus in Fur

PHOTO: Christopher Andersen as Thomas, Alexandra Friendly as Vonda, photo by Harvey Levine, courtesy Silver Spring Stage.

REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE

“Venus in Fur,” now playing at Silver Spring Stage, features two great performances. That’s good news, because there are only two actors in the show: Chris Andersen as Thomas Novachek, an off-Broadway director auditioning actors for his new play, and Alexandra Friendly, as Vanda, a hyperactive actress who shows up to audition after everyone else has left.

The play is all about the audition, as director and actress read a script adapted from the 1870 novel that gave the world its first literary look at masochism – as in, you know, S&M. Not surprisingly, things get weird.

The actors catch and keep the audience’s attention for a solid ninety minutes, with no intermission; they are solid, their performances nuanced and intense. As Vanda, Alexandra Friendly can turn on a dime from a chatty New Yorker with too many ideas coming out all at once, to a reticent, dignified 19th Century society woman, to an ominous, imperious dominatrix. Chris Andersen provides effective counterpoint, first as an earnest, intellectual artist, then as the submissive lover of the story within the story.

So what’s the problem? It’s the play, which attempts to be a lot of things, but ends up a muddle.

Structurally speaking, it’s a play within a play, but what kind of play is it?

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Photo by Pam Burks, courtesy Silver Spring Stage.

Is it a mystery about the actress, whose name happens to be the same as that of the main character, and who eerily puts down her script and begins speaking lines verbatim and directing scenes as she and Thomas turn into the characters of the play? Possibly – until Vanda comes up with a straightforward (though not very convincing) reason for inhabiting her role so effortlessly. So much for mystery.

Is the play attempting to be the theater equivalent of a cult film – selling, as if it were self-evident, the notion that the way to profound love is through pain and degradation? It tries to, but that’s a pretty tough sell for the average audience.

Is it a noir thriller? When Vanda orders Thomas to call his fiancée and tell her, without explanation, that he won’t be home tonight, then savagely swats the phone out of his hand, you’ve got to believe you’re headed there. But then there’s a meandering scene about a letter, and the characters trade roles: the man becomes the woman, and vice versa. By the time the next frisson of danger rolls around, with Thomas being tied to a conveniently available pole (but, remember, he’s the woman, and she’s the man), I have given up suspending my disbelief.

In his notes, Director John Dellaporta describes working on Venus in Fur as “an insanely meta-theatrical endeavor.” That’s it, on the nose: the play is about theater, but it isn’t theater – at least, not effective theater, with a story that grabs you and doesn’t let go until it’s done. There are lots of flashy moments (and a few dark ones), but nothing with any legs. The actors’ skills abet this, as they are both so good at adapting, you go off with them in whatever direction they’re headed. After a while, though, an audience can get worn out.

I’ll leave the last word to a lady whom I overheard from a few rows back, just after the curtain call: “I’m not exactly sure what it was all about, but I enjoyed it.” I would have flipped the two halves of that statement, but otherwise, I say: Amen.

Venus in Fur Facebook page.

• Getting There: For these reviews, I travel to and from the theater by public transportation, beginning and ending at the Takoma Metro station.

Last Saturday, I chose Ride On #14 (bay G), leaving at 6:40 pm – the last bus of the day for that route. Arriving at Silver Spring Metro (stop X) at 7:08 pm, I walked one block to stop C (Wayne Avenue) and caught Metrobus Z8 at 7:18 pm. The packed bus let me off at Four Corners, 100 feet from the Stage, at 7:30 pm, well ahead of the 8 pm curtain.

Coming didn’t get a #12 until 10:45 pm, making it back to the Takoma Metro station by 11:06 pm – an hour and a half, all told, for the return leg. Not exactly an efficient commute, but all the buses were clean and well lit; boarding and disembarking were efficient; no complaints. It takes patience, but it works. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, give it a try.

By David Ives; directed by John Dellaporta; produced by Pam Burks; set by Jimmy Stubbs; costumes by Kristina Martin; lighting by Peter Caress; sound by Rich Frangiamore. At Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. August 20, 21, 22, 23 and August 27, 28, 29, and 30. Running time: 90 minutes.

Cast: Chris Andersen (Thomas) and Alexandra Friendly (Vanda).