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St. Louis by Richard Green

Venus In Fur
West End Players Guild

Chris Jones and Paula Stoff Dean
"Paula [Stoff Dean] was born to play Vanda!" director Steve Callahan told me, in an email. And somehow I knew he was probably right.

"I thought she was born to play Sally Bowles, when I saw her in Cabaret. And then that she was born to play Arlene, when I saw her in Off The Map," I replied.

Clearly, the woman is triplets.

Here, she co-stars in David Ives' notoriously racy contest of wills. Venus In Fur struck like lightning in its premiere Off-Broadway in 2010. It moved to Broadway in 2011, where its leading lady won a Tony in a tour-de-force performance. And then the work proceeded to become the most produced modern play of the 2013-2014 season nationwide. It remains notorious, without seeming affected, and racy, just barely handling the curves.

You may have seen The Repertory Theatre's excellent production in March, 2013, but this new one compares very favorably. The Rep's Venus was able to produce fever-inducing shifts between the reality of the characters on stage, and the reality of the characters they in turn were playing. Now, WEPG's director Callahan comes up with something different, though highly compelling in its own way.

It's the 105th season opener for the venerable West End Players Guild, in which we find Ms. Dean and co-star Chris Jones pushing each other relentlessly, as the 105 minute show hurtles along. It's the same script as the Rep's, but it feels like a different show with a powerful impact of its own.

Mr. Jones as Thomas, a writer and director, becomes more and more forceful, in getting Ms. Dean as Wanda to adopt the psychological trappings of a sex goddess/dominatrix, in their official relationship as (prospective) director and actress. And Ms. Dean's Wanda gradually become ferociously assertive. In the final 30 minutes or so, she ruthlessly torments his masochistic "Severin" in a play that Thomas has written. It's intentionally complicated, but what emerges is seductive and terrifying.

The Rep's production had a lot more consistently visceral, humiliating tension—although the West End version has its share, too. But director Callahan's mounting subverts that tension at regular intervals with Ms. Dean's sparkling sense of humor. The two characters on stage also seem more evenly matched, in keeping with WEPG's theme of the season, focusing on "the battle of the sexes."

Ives' All In The Timing (the most produced modern play of 1995-1996 in the US) helped cement his reputation as an intriguing comedic playwright. So here, a greater reliance on his wit seems both valid and delightful. It allows for a lively mix of bright wit and dark licentiousness, where one is the feather, and the other a whip.

Through October 4, 2015, at the Union Avenue Christian Church (check out the elegant new lobby), a block north of Delmar on Union Ave. For more information visit

Cast of Characters
Thomas: Chris Jones
Vanda: Paula Stoff Dean

Director: Steve Callahan
Assistant Director/Stage Manager: Carrie Phinney
Lighting Design: Nathan Schroeder
Sound Design: Chuck Lavazzi
Costumes: Tracy Newcomb-Margrave
Lighting Technician: Renee Sevier-Monsey
Sound Technician: Mary Beth Winslow
Graphic Design & Photography: Marjorie Williamson
Box Office: Danny Austin
House Manager: Carrie Phinney
Program: Sean Belt
Social Media Intern: Alex Glow

Photo: John Lamb

-- Richard T. Green

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