Review by Matthew Hocter
Walking into the theatre at the Bakehouse and it is immediately clear that this show is not about the stage props, glitz and glam. It is most definitely scaled back and for good reason. STARC Productions cofounders, Stefanie Rossi and Marc Clement who are also the two stars of their latest production, Venus In Fur, don’t want the viewer to be distracted by unnecessary design elements. This is not to say that theatre design is not important, more so as they themselves have stated “a place where the actor is central.”
Under the sound direction of former head of acting at NIDA, director Tony Knight (also one of the cofounders of STARC productions) gives free reign to Rossi and Clement to delve into their characters, Vanda Jordan a dominatrix coming to the audition of her life and Thomas Novacheck, a successful New York playwright. Set in New York and with matching accents done to perfection, David Ives adaption of the infamous 19th century novel, Venus in Fur by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch is given a new humble home in Adelaide, but with equally as much gusto as its performances from around the globe.
From the minute Rossi and Clement stepped on the stage, the chemistry was electric. Makes sense, given that the two are in fact real life partners and given the content of this play, I am sure made things just that little bit easier. Novacheck’s take on von Sacher-Masoch's play is a pilgrimage through sadomasochism, into feminism and all the cultural taboos and complexities associated with both topics. Almost bizarrely, the two topics intertwine and work for and against each other as the two actors grapple with power and a somewhat darker, erotic sensory overload wrapped up in what appears to be “just” an audition. Clearly the (sexual) tension between the two is so much more than that.
This play encompasses so much more than it lets on with. As Vanda (Rossi) so effortlessly saunters around the stage in a mix of innocence and pure goddess, it is clear right from the get go that the actor not only has a stage presence that commands all in her gaze to unashamedly play voyeur, she ever so subtly demands it too. Character or not, Rossi is mesmerizing and faultless. Equally, but less dominant in his presence is Novacheck (Clement) who at first seems assertive, only to be broken down into a vulnerable uncertainty that played beautifully next to Rossi’s powerful, sometimes clumsy and desperate, growth throughout the play.
Whether it be Vanda’s heartfelt and hopeless monologue about the life of a struggling actress or her sheer determination to win over Novacheck with her gripping ability to launch in character, that sense of desperation and longing to be seen is something incredibly human and totally relatable. “Basically, it’s S and M porn” Vanda blurts out, to which Novacheck rebukes with “Venus in Fur is a great love story.” Love story maybe, a great exploration into eroticism and sexual identity it most certainly is. As the characters of Vanda and Novacheck take on the play’s characters of Dunayev and Kushemski, the plays true nature and game playing of subjugation and psychosexual are brought to the forefront.
The story of director and actress is a story as old as time. This play breaks down that traditional concept of the casting couch and just who is in charge is something that continually changes. The mystery of desire vs motive is what keeps the audience captivated for over ninety minutes. One never really knows just what “Venus in Fur” alludes to; sexually or emotionally. A mysterious journey into the unknown and at the same time, familiarity that transcends any societal boundaries. One thing is for sure though, whilst both Clement and Rossi bring this play to life, it is Rossi who brings a powerful and exhilarating performance beyond compare.
Venus in Fur is a smart and at times hilarious sojourn into sexual desire – in all its varied and delicious manifestations.