Review: 'Venus' rises to triumphant opening at Gulfshore Playhouse

Kelley Curran in the Gulfshore Playhouse production of 'Venus in Fur.'

Pedro Zepeda / Gulfshore Playhouse

Kelley Curran in the Gulfshore Playhouse production of "Venus in Fur."

Kelley Curran and Nick Duckart in the Gulfshore Playhouse production of 'Venus in Fur.'

Photo by Pedro Zepeda/Gulfshore Playhouse

Kelley Curran and Nick Duckart in the Gulfshore Playhouse production of "Venus in Fur."

Kelley Curran in the Gulfshore Playhouse production of 'Venus in Fur.'
Pedro Zepeda/Gulfshore Playhouse

Kelley Curran in the Gulfshore Playhouse production of "Venus in Fur." Pedro Zepeda/Gulfshore Playhouse


What: Actress and playwright square off over a sexually charged script

When: 8 p.m. through Saturday, Oct. 19. Additional 3 p.m. matinées Oct. 6, 12, 13 & 20.

Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples

Cost: $29-$35, $15 for students; $20 preview on Thursday, Oct. 3

Information: 866-811-4111 or

On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog

The fur flew.

Oh, come on. That pun wrote itself. The play is called "Venus in Fur." Caucasian sable from Kazakhstan.

And subtext. Acres of subtext - even if we never get acres of skin. This isn't porn, after all.

Unless you use your imagination. "…opening the fur to reveal her glories?"

And Kristen Coury knows how to use her imagination. "Venus in Fur" requires it. Think of this as "The Importance of Being Earnest" meets "Fifty Shades of Grey," with two superb performances, laugh-out-loud one-liners and one long, round, tall and bulbous phallic symbol that dominates the stage.

Sorry. It's just too easy.

"Venus in Fur" opens with playwright Thomas (Nick Duckart) barking into a cell phone. He needs a woman. Well, an actress. Cue Vanda (Kelley Curran). Hours late for her audition (if she ever had one), clad in leather and stilettos, cussing like a sailor and concealing surprises galore under those fishnets and black bra. Oh. The dog collar? It was left over from her days as a prostitute.

What happens next is … complicated? Or not. Thomas and Vanda talk a lot. She's an actress. He's a playwright. He auditions her for his play. Ooooooh. She's good.

So is Kelley Curran. Director Kristen Coury scoured New York for the right actress to carry off the preening blend of confidence, open mockery and featherweight facade of innocence. Curran, cast from a videotape audition, electrifies from the moment Vanda bursts through the door, a messy tumble of clothes, bags, shoes and leather underwear.

The best of everything always arrives when you least expect it. Or, in the words of Thomas himself: "You might say this play is about … beware of what you wish for."

Curran inhabits Vanda with the complete uninhibited abandon required to carry such a bold, complex character forward. Churlish one moment, meowing and purring the next, hard as nails three heartbeats later and then curling around the central column like avaricious kudzu swallowing the South.

Watch her maneuver around the stage. No satisfied lioness, sated but bored, lolling in the savannah, eying a gazelle, ever switched from playful to predator with such grace. Wait for those moments you see Curran embrace Vanda's naked (no pun intended) physicality, like unabashedly spreading her legs and plopping on an ill-used divan with carefree joy.

How many actresses do you know who can knock out a punchline - "she looked pretty wet the last time I saw her" (yes, it means *exactly* that; no, the crowd didn't get it *at all*) - and follow that with a full standing to butt-on-the-floor squat in the blink of an eye? While wearing stiletto heels?

"Venus" can be read multiple ways - sex, power, manipulation, dominance, jealousy, raw physical attraction - everything appears. During the audition scenes, audiences should question the motives behind Thomas's work. Interpret the play-within-the-play (the steamy 1870s version of "Fifty Shades") as a direct correlation to what's happening in real life. And whatever else, everything Vanda says as Vanda is absolutely true.

Coury seizes on the layers within layers within layers of "Venus." She stages a scintillating battle of the sexes that ends with someone holding a whip and someone tied to a pipe in a room in Brooklyn. Scary. Kinky. Mrrrowlllll.

Power. Duckart returns to Gulfshore Playhouse after appearing in the acclaimed "A View from the Bridge." His so very un-self-aware Thomas proves the brittle anvil for the hammer stroke of Vanda's lash of love. Look for the petty anger (played as sexist snobbery and clueless confusion) to manifest as white-hot erotic passion.

Coury pushes her two actors to carry the diffident teasing - even when Thomas "arranges" a cheap thrift shop shawl over Vanda's bosom for a scene - to the absolute limit.

Look no farther than the wordless stretch where Duckart, reading the part of doomed nobleman Kushemski, zips Curran into a pair of slick, shiny, thigh-high stripper boots that walked right off the "Pretty Woman" set. I'm not sure there was a breath taken as those long legs stretched upward - or as the seams closed, ever so slowly - downward. Exhale.

The fun part of "Venus" lies in watching Thomas lose his mind and his identity at the hands of this woman Vanda. WHO IS SHE? But watch also how Coury navigates the various power struggles in the text. Clever staging (catch the delicious psychologist couch scene) allows life to imitate art. At every moment, Thomas seems to be in control. No man ever is.

Friday's opening performance glittered, but Coury knows that "Venus" - and her actors - have another gear or three within them. Duckart and Curran click with exceptional rhythm, they just need time to settle into the characters and experiment with the craft of acting. The pace feels off in a handful of spots; one dead patch Friday was saved - ironically - by a scripted phone call. Vanda also enters, dry as a bone, in the middle of an obvious rainstorm.

David L. Arsenault's set captures the bland, bare, battered studio feel. Complete with either stripper pole or symbolic phallus, take your pick. Lighting designer David M. Upton repeats his dramatic blackout-thunder-crash-lights up opening that sparked "The Whipping Man" to life. Here, every peal of thunder and atavistic electric spark of lighting from sound designer Gabriel Luxton "means something." Bonus points for digging out Bananarama's "Venus" for the pre-show.

The risqué costume for Curran's saucy actress looks cheap. I get the point; the outfit is just one more disguise for Vanda, a creature of many identities. The getup just feels a bit too much like an obvious "costume" - neither realistic S&M gear nor the trappings of a prostitute.

"Venus" goes down (pun intended) as one of this season's first "must-watch" plays. Catch Kelley Curran and Nick Duckart in their dueling dance of the damned.

I prefer Mars. Email me,, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

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