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Venus in Fur signals more good theater to come

Venus in fur
Jack Lafferty as Thomas Novachek in Venus in Fur, a co-production of Cockroach Theatre and the Nevada Conservatory Theater.

A coworker told me last week that she’d seen  Venus in Fur, the Nevada Conservatory and Cockroach theaters’ co-production at Arts Square, and that it was the best play she’d seen in Vegas. I took the recommendation as more than hyperbole, because she’s married to a bigwig in performing arts and because the play starred Mindy Woodhead, whose fine work I’ve followed since  writing about her for Desert Companion in 2012. So, I nabbed the last two tickets for the last performance in an extended run, and I agree with my coworker:  Venus in Fur the best play I’ve seen in Vegas.

First, there’s the material, David Ives’ play-within-a-play take on the novel  Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, masochism’s namesake. Then there’s that: the sexual tension — signaled by the clap of thunder that begins, ends and intermittently punctuates the action — between the characters. It opens with first-time writer-director Thomas Novachek (played by Jack Lafferty) grousing on the phone to his fiancée at the end of a long day spent trying, unsuccessfully, to cast an actress to play his main character Vanda. Suddenly, a woman of that very name — or almost, Wanda (Woodhead) — bursts in from the storm, late for her reading and seemingly the opposite of what the picky playwright wants. She persuades him to let her read, though, and, over the course of the ensuing 90, intermission-free minutes not only gets the part, but also gets revenge for every time a writer/director has patronized a woman in the history of male-dominated Western literature.

Yes, there’s much dressing and undressing, tying up and tying down, going on in  Venus in Fur. But the stuff that stuck with me days later wasn’t physical; it was psychological. And the stickiness of it came mainly from Woodhead, under the direction of  Christopher Edwards, who became  artistic director for Nevada Conservatory Theater last year. It’s just a two-person, one-act play, and Lafferty is wonderful as Novachek. But his character serves ultimately as foil for Wanda’s poignant, complex prank, and where Lafferty has to shift gears between two characters, Woodhead plays three (four, really, she argues in  a promo Q&A). Even trickier, that final character, the audience only realizes in the closing moment, has been lurking almost imperceptibly under the other two all along.

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In other words, Woodhead, an actress, plays an actress (Wanda) auditioning for a part (Vanda) that symbolizes Venus. But Wanda isn’t really a woman; she’s (spoiler alert!) Aphrodite, come to reclaim her identity from another male misinterpreter. All this — with plenty of costume, hairstyle and makeup changes to boot — and no breaks. It’s an impressive feat of focus and stamina.

Why tell you this now, when it’s too late for you to savor for yourself? Two reasons: First, for the joy of saying I told you so — well, Woodhead did anyway, in  the aforementioned article I wrote about her. I quote: “I imagine that Las Vegas is going to have a theatrical renaissance in the years to come, and I see it at a very nascent stage at this point. … In the years to come, I really see being a part of all those avenues — CSN, UNLV, the Las Vegas Academy and the Smith Center — to reach as many people in Las Vegas as possible.”

Segue to the second reason: With Woodhead’s vision, a vision shared by the theater community she embraces, coming to life, keep an eye on the guides and listings. There’s plenty more, I bet, where  Venus came from.

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.