Have you ever felt like you have a situation all figured out? Then you get little clues that make you realize that there’s something much more complicated going on?
That’s what happens to playwright and director Thomas Novachek (James Ricks) when confronted with seemingly ditzy actress Vanda Jordan (Maggie Roop) in the seductively disorienting comedy “Venus in Fur,” co-produced by TheatreLab and Yes, And Entertainment.
As carefully attenuated by director Matt Shofner, the power dynamics between the director and actress evolve gradually during the intermission-free 90 minutes, with intensifying undercurrents of control, cruelty and desire. By the end, like Thomas, you’re likely to wonder, “Who exactly is this Vanda and where the hell did she come from?”
The underpinning for this story is the 19th-century novella, “Venus in Furs,” written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the source for the term masochism. In the play, Thomas has adapted the novella for the stage and has been searching in vain for a woman who can embody the character of Vanda, a woman who degrades and enslaves her infatuated suitor.
When Roop’s Vanda bursts through the door hours late for an audition, she certainly doesn’t seem like the right choice even though she shares the character’s name. She’s scattered and vulgar and reductively refers to Thomas’ source material as “S&M porn.” Her initial outfit, a leather skirt over skimpy lingerie — one of several delightfully surprising frocks assembled by designer Emily Atkins — is played as a joke.
But, as the ominous thunderclaps that reverberate throughout their interaction indicate, there are mysterious powers at work here. Vanda and Thomas read through one scene, and then another and another, with Thomas clearly compelled to go on.
The clever effectiveness of Roop’s portrayal lies in well-timed revelations. She has shopping bags filled with too-perfect costumes and props, and she knows an unnerving amount about Thomas and his fiancee. Vanda stops the audition from being just a darkly foreboding mystery by repeatedly and hilariously breaking character to insert biting commentary on Thomas’ play, undercutting his chauvinistic misunderstanding of an authentic masochistic relationship.
Roop has the more showy role, and she does some exceptional work, alternating among numerous personas with ease. There’s an exquisite tension between her more awkward, comic physicality and the forceful sexuality she projects when needed.
Though he has a long acting résumé, Ricks is better known as a director in Richmond, making his portrayal a revelation. He has to make plain Thomas’ inner struggle as he reluctantly agrees to give Vanda a chance, and then finds himself scrambling after her while she leads him deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. Ricks never falters in making Thomas thoroughly, and almost heartbreakingly, believable.
Shofner makes an impressive directorial debut with “Venus.” The interactive beats that pulse through this show were carefully cultivated. Joey Luck’s bold sound design and Michael Jarett’s vibrant lighting are critical aspects of creating an intensifying mood as the action plays out on Adam Dorland’s set, a simple but nicely detailed evocation of a low-rent New York rehearsal space.
The interpersonal gymnastics generate a generous amount of intrigue but there are also plenty of provocative questions being asked about submission and subconscious motivations. “Venus” challenges you to delve deeper … if you dare. S
“Venus in Fur” will run in TheatreLab’s Basement space, 300 E. Broad St., through May 7. Tickets and information available at theatrelabrva.org.