Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ at Compass Rose Theater

It is hard to describe Compass Rose Theater’s production of Venus in Fur except as awesome in the original sense of inspiring awe. Written by David Ives and first appearing off-Broadway in 2010, then on Broadway in 2011, the play features two actors on a nearly bare stage. This version, directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne, combines excellent acting and directing with inventive sound and lighting. It is a wonderful choice to open Compass Rose’s 8th season.

Joe Mucciolo (Thomas) and Anna DeBlasio (Vanda) in Compass Rose Theater's production of Venus in Fur. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Joe Mucciolo (Thomas) and Anna DeBlasio (Vanda) in Compass Rose Theater’s production of Venus in Fur. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The play’s minimum staging requirements serve Compass Rose well–because of City permit issues, the company has had to put on this show in a hotel basement meeting room. In the center of the stage (managed by Rachel A. Walsh), is a large metal desk with a chair. To the right is a tall, thin pole reaching up to the ceiling, which will take on significance by the end. Next to it is are two chairs put together with a blanket placed over them to create a chaise. To the left of the desk is a stool with a carafe of coffee and Styrofoam cups. Other chairs are scattered throughout the stage.

The play is somewhat complex, beginning with Thomas (Joe Mucciolo), a playwright and director, complaining on the phone about not being able to find the right actress for his play, an adaptation of the 1870 novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, for whom masochism was named. Suddenly, Vanda (Anna DeBlasio) enters, soaking wet and swearing at herself for being late to the audition. Although Thomas wants to go home to his fiancé, Vanda convinces him to let her audition, and they start to read a scene together. The play switches between “reality” and the play-within-the-play, oftentimes in the middle of a scene. As the play progresses, questions arise as to who Vanda really is.

DeBlasio and Mucciolo are extremely talented actors, switching effortlessly between the play and the play-within-the-play, as DeBlasio asks questions or makes insightful comments about what they are performing. She reveals hidden depths to what originally seems a flighty character. For instance, when Mucciolo makes a reference to The Bacchae, she needs to be reminded about that classical Greek play. She keeps using “ambivalent” when she means “ambiguous.” And yet, she suggests adding a scene of Venus visiting Thomas’ character, and they act it out, seemingly spontaneously. While she claims she briefly glanced at the script and the original novella, both copies are well-thumbed.

Mucciolo does an excellent job as the intellectual playwright, eager to make his play exactly as he sees it. He comes across as pedantic, offering explanations in an easily annoyed tone. And yet, when DeBlasio asks him questions about his character, he cannot easily answer, which annoys her to no end. He argues with her several times, most passionately when she suggests that his character might be based on him, arguing instead that he was drawn to the “overblown emotions” of the original work. He heatedly gets in her face, yelling that she can play her character perfectly and yet not understand her at all.

DeBlasio and Mucciolo are in near constant motion. DeBlasio stands on the chairs, and the desk, while Mucciolo frequently kneels. At one point, while Mucciolo sits in a chair, DeBlasio, sitting on the desk, lays her feet in his lap, then throws one leg onto his shoulder. He kneels on the desk, while she mimes whipping him from behind with a switch. She lays on the chaise, and he lays his head on her chest.

Mary Ruth Cowgill has done a wonderful job as Costume Designer, giving striking outfits to Vanda. Her first appearance has her wearing a khaki raincoat and carrying a wet umbrella and a huge tote bag. Taking off the coat reveals her in a short black leather skirt and top, with a studded dog collar, and wearing black heels. She takes that off to stand in a black lace bra and underwear, with sheer stockings. For the play-within-a-play, she wears a long, white lace dress. She uses a dark red shawl as her “fur.” Later she puts on long, black leather boots, and carries beige stockings. Thomas begins the play in blue jeans, a long-sleeve blue dress shirt, and a brown tie. For the play-within-a-play, he wears a dark blue suede jacket, as well as a lighter blue coat with tails.

Joe Mucciolo (Thomas) and Anna DeBlasio (Vanda) in Compass Rose Theater's production of Venus in Fur. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Joe Mucciolo (Thomas) and Anna DeBlasio (Vanda) in Compass Rose Theater’s production of Venus in Fur. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The lighting, by Marianne Meadows, works well for such a sparse stage to reflect the changing mood. In the center stage is a fluorescent light, which goes on at the start. Throughout the play, it is turned off, replaced by a softer lamp. In one romantically charged scene, an electric candle “burns” on the desk. At the end, all the lights briefly turn off, as a flashlight shines across the stage, before turning on again for a dramatic reveal.

Sound Designer Rachel A. Walsh does a great job throwing out sounds of lighting and thunder. As the play progresses, these sounds become more ominous, adding to the idea that something strange, almost mystical, is happening onstage. The final scene is filled with thunderous reverberations, giving great power to the last image.

Lucinda Merry-Browne is an excellent Director. DeBlasio and Mucciolo navigate the stage and each other perfectly, moving gracefully. Fight Choreographer James Bunzli makes some of the more action-packed sequences feel natural. They make a complex play seem understandable, even though the meaning might be ambiguous and up to the audience to decide. The production is a perfect example of theater at its most intimate, that can be staged anywhere, giving audiences beautiful performances and plenty to think about afterward. Describing it doesn’t do it justice; it should be seen to be believed.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Venus in Fur, presented by Compass Rose Theater, plays through November 4, 2018, at Country Inn and Suites by Radisson – 2600 Housley Road, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-980-6662 or purchase them online.