The now frequently produced David Ives play Venus in Fur became the newest show to grace the Station Theatre stage last Thursday night when it opened to an enthusiastic and full house. Spearheading the production is director Gary Ambler, who has, in recent seasons, directed Sons of the Prophet and A Steady Rain at the Station. Frequent Champaign-Urbana theatre performers Thom Miller (as Thomas Novachek) and Laura Anne Welle (as Vanda) both gave extremely passionate performances on Thursday night, though it does take us more than a few minutes to warm up to them.
As they are experienced actors, both did a fine job remaining true to the script, but their largest acting obstacle seemed to be each other, which in a two-person play is highly problematic. Mr. Miller seemed unwilling to allow Ms. Welle to affect his performance; so, while we did see his sassy and strong-willed nature shine through his robust exterior, his reactions seemed pre-planned. Significantly missing from this intimate play was the intimacy between Vanda and Thomas. In a piece that does not shy away from seduction, we see few attempts at such, which prevents the audience from understanding some of Thomas’s motives and Vanda’s frustrations at the end of the play.
The actors aren’t completely to blame for this deficiency, as the costumes, especially those meant to sexualize Vanda, only prove to be ill-fitting, difficult to maneuver in, and without regard for either Ms. Welle’s or Mr. Miller’s shape. While we could forgive Ms. Welle’s character for not being able to put on her long “rehearsal” dress on opening night, it soon appeared that Ms. Welle herself could have used more rehearsal as the sympathetic laughs soon subsided to apathetic signs of impatience after the first few problems with her costume occurred.
[Spoiler alert: although the play has been around for a few years and has been published, the next paragraph contains information about a crucial plot point.]
Ambler’s more calculated moments of stage business drew us closer to understanding the development of Vanda and Thomas’s relationship, but they did not bring the audience closer to pondering one of the play’s largest questions: Is Vanda, in fact, Venus? The insignificant staging of key moments like Vanda’s phone calls to her “significant other,” her taking of Thomas’s wallet, her possession of a knife, and her final “transformation” indicate that the production itself had not made a decision as to who this woman is. Other production elements left the show teetering between intentional and substandard, as we were constantly wondering what was a choice and what was poor design. Perhaps the most disappointing stage picture was the final moment of the production, in which Vanda was faced completely away from the house (in standard proscenium), completely obscuring Thomas from our view. Ms. Welle already has a height advantage over Mr. Miller, and the fur (clearly faux) gave us no suggestion that the status — the balance of power — had transferred from man to woman in this anticlimactic exchange.
Admittedly, those who have not previously experienced one of many successful runs of Venus in Fur are sure to enjoy themselves, as there is great energy in the intimate theater and you’re sure to laugh all night. For those few theatre connoisseurs, the production proves less delightful, however, as you’ll no doubt recognize how underwhelmingly the moments of great importance are executed.
Venus in Fur at the Station Theatre will run November 5-9 and 12-15, and performances commence at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, and $15 on Fridays and Saturdays, with a $1 discount for students and senior citizens with valid IDs. Visit the Station website for further information or to make reservations.
Photos by Sam Logan.