Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ at Fells Point Corner Theatre

Fells Point Corner Theatre’s Venus in Fur will knock you over.

Whew! It is amazing!

The dynamic talents of actors Andrew Porter and Anne Shoemaker fill the Fells Point Corner Theatre with their explosive energy. It’s a wonder the roof didn’t fly off.

Anne Shoemaker and Andrew Porter. Photo courtesy of Fells Point Corner Theatre.
Anne Shoemaker (Vanda) and Andrew Porter (Thomas). Photo courtesy of Fells Point Corner Theatre.

These two digested hundreds of pages of dialogue and talked nonstop throughout the show without even a moment’s break. They made me and the audience truly feel they were prying flies on the cracked and peeling walls of Thomas Novacheck’s sparsely furnished Manhattan studio.

There’s one door, but, once it opens and closes shut, the characters and the audience are locked in together.

The production is a play-within-a-play, and is brilliantly directed by Linda McClary. David Ives adapted it from the novel Venus in Furs by Austrian Leopold von Sacher Masoch in 1870. (Note the play title includes the word Fur and the novel is Furs.)

Say ‘Sacher Masoch’ a few times real fast and the word “masochist” begins to form. The notorious novel inspired the term. Masochism is the enjoyment of pain or pleasure a person gets from being abused or hurt. It is primarily a sexual gratification from being hurt, humiliated, or punished.

In brief, the novel’s main male character, Severin von Kusiemski, is so taken with a woman, Wanda von Dunajew, he begs to be her slave. What happens is detailed in a manuscript within the novel, Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man. As Wanda von Dunajew slowly becomes more despotic, the novel followed the progress of this sadomasochistic relationship to its bitter conclusion.

Though the dialogue is 140 years distant, some of the concepts illuminated by the novel are startlingly current – or still haven’t been resolved.

Severin decides a woman is man’s enemy because of the way she was created and how men have educated her. He feels she cannot be his equal or companion, just his slave or master, until both genders have equality in education and work.

On stage, the audience is facing into Andrew’s studio. Several folding chairs are scattered about. A metal frame desk and a coffee bar is off to one side. Incongruously, there is a standing pole near the rear of the set. The centerpiece is a plump chaise lounge upholstered with a red and gold brocade fabric.

A single door leads onto the set.

As the show begins, Thomas Novachek (Andrew Porter) is on his cell phone. He adapted the novel Venus in Furs into a play for a New York City stage, and has spent the day with some of his production crew auditioning 35 actresses for the role of Wanda von Dunayev (not Dunajew as in the book). Frustrated, he complains they brought loads of props but none fit his weighty expectations for the role. His crew has gone, and he’s making plans to meet up with his fiancée Stacy in a few minutes.

The door bursts open and Vanda Jordan (Anne Shoemaker) charges into the room spewing a bucket load of obscenities. She loudly apologizes for being delayed. Her arms are full with her big prop bag. She’s wearing a bulky, boxy raincoat. Thomas tries to rebuff her, send her on her way. But, Vanda complains, she’s spent hours getting there and she needs a job.

As Thomas continues to protest, she turns away from him and the audience and takes off her coat. What’s underneath is the first of many eye-popping events in the show.

Despite Andrew’s protestations, and Vanda’s apparent inexperience, the audition goes on. And, subtly, without anyone realizing it initially, Vanda – or is it Wanda? –  takes over.

Kudos to the Sound  Designer Rick Stover and Lighting Designer Joel Selzer  for their fine work. Both characters use cell phones throughout the show. When a phone is supposed to ring, it does. Sound and light are deftly engineered in several scenes where the crash of thunder and flash of lightning the telegraph a change in one or both characters.

Earlier, I mentioned the two were in character and onstage throughout the entire show without a break or a minute to catch their breath. They never dropped a line nor mangled a syllable while staying in their various characters.

Anne Shoemaker (Vanda). Photo courtesy of Fells Point Corner Theatre.
Anne Shoemaker (Vanda). Photo courtesy of Fells Point Corner Theatre.

The two slipped in and out of personas and accents as easily as sliding in and out of a fur stole.

It was especially intriguing watching the emotions Andrew Porter’s character was experiencing telegraphed in the set of his upper lip over his teeth, or the squaring of his jaw.

Because of the intensity and excellence of the acting, and the outstanding excellence of both actors and production team, I give this show ***** and a Black Fox.

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, without intermission.

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Venus in Fur plays through April 3, 2016 at Fells Point Corner Theatre – 251 South Ann Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 404-1243, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!