By Leigh Austin
Having no knowledge going into Circle Theatre’s production of Venus in Fur of the play’s plot, I was more than pleasantly surprised to witness the outcome of David Ives’ empowering, feminist show. From the initial, tame setup to the thundering ending, Ives’ play and Circle Theatre’s presentation highlighted inherent biases about sexuality and gender and reveled in tearing them down.
David Ives’ two-person play, which originally opened off-Broadway in 2010, begins with writer-director Thomas Novachek (Zach Livingston) lamenting the lack of actresses talented enough to capture the sensuality and intelligence of Wanda von Dunayev, the leading character in his adaptation of a 19th century novel. Just as he’s packing up to head home, a last-minute entry bursts in, young, brash actress Vanda Jordan (Arti Ishak), begging for a chance to be seen despite her lack of punctuality. Novacheck begrudgingly grants the pushy and seemingly dull-witted actress a reading, and the balance between the two shifts as Vanda surpasses every imaginable expectation.
To say more would ruin the wonderful turn of events that Ives’ play presents, but it’s safe to say that Circle Theatre’s production is driven by Arti Ishak’s captivating performance. Ishak takes charge, in a variety of ways, in every aspect of this show, eliciting a roller coaster ride of audience reactions and emotions. From the almost verbal eye rolls and snorting laughter at the play’s beginning to the audible gasps of surprise and excitement at the end, Ishak’s performance is one of such range that I believe every audience member left the show looking ahead to see where they might catch a glimpse of Ishak onstage next.
Next to such a powerful leading woman, Livingston puts up a passable but forgettable performance, one which seems fitting for the mediocre writer/director Novacheck (though that may not be entirely purposeful). Livingston struggles the most in the moments which should come across as genuine, which is shame considering how much more powerful the play’s conclusion may have been.
Despite having limited space to work with, the design team, headed by scenic designer Emily Boyd, found ways to illuminate (a pun for those familiar with the show) the technical elements. The level of detail on the set and the execution of more challenging elements like a large pipe in the middle of the room (which is written into Ives’ script) proved quite impressive and helped the overall aesthetic of the show.
Venus in Fur runs through 3/19 at the Heartland Studio.
The Hawk was a common name for the cold, winter wind in Chicago, possibly even predating "the Windy City." Additionally, a hawk can see up to eight times more clearly than the human eye.