Theatre Review by Jerald Raymond Pierce
3 out of 4
Circle Theatre’s production of Venus in Fur came at a difficult time. The implosion of Dead Writers Theatre Collective had reached its apex and I had finished reading the disturbing stories covered by PerfromInk mere hours before arriving to Heartland Studio. All of these unsettling tales of actresses being mistreated by a director followed by a play where the interactions between the on stage director and the on stage actress were unsavory (to say the least) was a bit of a sensory overload. It was uncomfortable. It was abrasive. It was exactly what this production wanted to be.
Venus in Fur takes place in the office/rehearsal space of playwright turned director Thomas (Zach Livingston) as his day of auditioning actresses who aren’t quite right tries to come to an end. Before he is able to call it quits, in bursts Vanda (Arti Ishak) for a last minute audition. After some reluctance, Thomas agrees to read with Vanda and winds up heading down a path of discovery about his play that he is not quite ready to handle.
This production is a bit heavy-handed. From the top, the production is trying to show the audience that it knows the twist that’s coming and that it truly understands the deeper meanings and many layers to the script. So, rather than simply letting the script lead the journey, director Charlotte Drover takes the story by the hand and yanks it along. This pursuit of proving a deeper understanding of the text took away from the simple task of keeping the play believable. There was no fight to make the audience believe basic aspects of the plot like why she was there and wanted this part so badly, why he didn’t just up and leave, and why, when things broke down, they would go back and keep reading this script together. These missing essentials made it too easy to see the trappings Vanda was laying for Thomas.
That’s not to say the play wasn’t still enjoyable. In fact, Ishak’s performance was absolutely stellar and rescued the production on more than one occasion when it threatened to become plodding. Her performance falters a bit in the middle simply because the storytelling of the overall production loses that believability, but her character work is sublime. Her shift from Vanda the actress to Vanda acting is so powerful and seamless that it sends chills down your spine. If you look closely, you can see her internal pace shift. It’s as if her heartbeat changes. It is a truly spectacular performance.
Ishak, Livingston, and Drover should be credited for absolutely nailing the ending to this play aesthetically. Even if the build is a bit anticlimactic because it became so predictable, the visual and aural aspects were overwhelming (in the best possible way). Of course, lighting designer Maya Michele Fein and sound designer Domonic McDaye deserve credit as well. Fein should also be credited with a very clever use of practical lights that the actors could manipulate in the space to create stark up and side light for their “scenes.” Prior to the end, McDaye’s work was less than notable as his background rain became more distracting white noise than a contributing factor to the atmosphere.
This play has an ideal ending. Every tiny bit of squeamishness felt during the play is released in an explosion of catharsis. It’s poignant and incredibly important. Unfortunately, this production is so excited about that ending, that the rest of the play is underwhelming. Ishak’s performance is a draw, but messy storytelling combined with arbitrary mid-scene furniture movements leaves a lot to be desired.
Circle Theatre presents Venus in Fur, directed by Charlotte Drover, February 18 – March 19 at The Heartland Studio in Rogers Park, 7016 N. Glenwood Ave. Industry Nights are Mondays: February 27, March 6 and March 13 at 8 p.m. The performance schedule is Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available at CircleTheatreChicago.org. More information is also available at www.theatreinchicago.com.
Jerald Raymond Pierce is a journalist, stage manager, actor, director, and playwright in the Chicago area with an MA in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. He also is a contributor to American Theatre magazine and an editor for ShowSnob.com. When he’s not spending unnecessary amounts of money on sports tickets, theatre tickets, and random travels, he’s probably ranting about Doctor Who, time travel, and the general merits of current television and movie writers.