TheatreLAB’s “Venus in Fur” explores submission, sex

Actors Maggie Roop and James Hicks star in TheatreLAB’s latest production of the play that deals with highly sexual themes. Photo courtesy of TheatreLAB
Actors Maggie Roop and James Hicks star in TheatreLAB’s latest production of the play that deals with highly sexual themes. Photo courtesy of TheatreLAB
Actors Maggie Roop and James Hicks star in TheatreLAB’s latest production of the play that deals with highly sexual themes. Photo courtesy of TheatreLAB
Actors Maggie Roop and James Hicks star in TheatreLAB’s latest production of the play that deals with highly sexual themes. Photo courtesy of TheatreLAB

Dominance, superiority, sadomasochism and gender roles – all convoluted topics that are unpackaged and inverted in TheatreLAB’s production of “Venus in Fur.”

They’re presenting the play in conjunction with Yes And Entertainment at the Basement in TheatreLAB until May 9. The play is the directorial debut for Richmond actor Matt Shofner, seen on stage in 2014 as the lead in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

“Venus in Fur” is inspired by the German novella “Venus in Furs,” which tells the story of Severin von Kusiemski, a man who is so infatuated with a woman, Wanda von Dunajew, that he asks to be her slave and encourages her to treat him in progressively degrading ways.

The play, on the other hand, revolves around Thomas, a hapless playwright and director who is desperate to find an actress to play the female lead Vanda, based on Dunajew in the book. A vulgar actress in need of work enters his audition room, and she is oddly also named Vanda. As the two work through the script, they blur the line between play and reality, entering an increasingly serious game of submission and domination that only one of them can win.

Shofner describes directing for the first time a “rewarding experience” that required a lot of work. VCU alumni and TheatreLAB director Maggie Roop is dealing with a role reversal, as she once directed Shofner and is now working under him as Vanda.

“When we sat down to talk with TheatreLAB’s artistic director, Deejay Gray, about this co-production of ‘Venus in Fur,’ Deejay mentioned that he was interested in casting Maggie in the female role,” Shofner said. “I piped in that it would be interesting if I took a turn directing since Maggie would be back on stage. He agreed, and it was settled.”

The play takes place entirely in an audition room, which proved to be a welcome challenge for Shofner and his team.

“The main challenge with the setting is making sure that the actors are moving through the space naturally, while technically keeping them open and visible to each member of our audience,” Shofner said. “Our designer, Adam Dorland, has created a very realistic NYC audition studio in all of it’s overused and mildly neglected glory.”

VCU alumni Emily Atkins is the costume designer for the play and offered insight into the unique collaboration that went into making “Venus in Fur.”

“TheaterLAB is such a strong collaborative environment, and Matt Shofner was very open and receptive. ‘Venus in Fur’ is a play-within-a-play… this allowed us to really have fun with the period… taking them out of reality and into theatricality,” Atkins said.

Shofner used the words “sexy” and “powerful” to describe the play, alluding to the overtones and scenes that make it unsafe for children, and said there may be a sense of danger to the tone.

“Sacher-Masoch’s writing is where we get the term masochism, so the play deals heavily with power in numerous forms: dominance and submission, feminine and masculine, human and omniscient,” Shofner said. “Both characters fluctuate between being the giver and commander, or as the play says, the hammer and the anvil.”

Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch is the author of “Venus in Furs.”

Atkins and Shofner both encourage VCU students to see the play, whose production involved TheatreVCU alumni Maggie Roop (Vanda), Amanda Durst (Vocal Director), Adam Dorland (Set Design) and Shofner himself. Michael Jarett, technical director for VCU Dance worked on lighting design on the play.

“It’s sexy and hilarious and a little scary,” Atkins said. “‘Venus in Fur’ is a great opportunity to support quality local theater made by young people.”

Adriel Velazquez, Contributing Writer

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