STORY WRITTEN BY GARY PULEO
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NORRISTOWN>>It is fitting that the first play to come thundering back onto the Centre Theater stage after the venue’s long hiatus opens with the sound of a thunderclap.
“The play takes place during a thunderstorm, so there is a lot of thunder going on,” explained director Christen Mandracchia.
Although thunder roars intermittently during the provocative comedy “Venus in Fur” by David Ives, no sound effects are likely to ever steal the spotlight from the performances of professional lead actors Kelli Cooper and Christopher McGinnis.
“We had some very talented people come out to audition and we had the pick of the crème de la crème of professional actors in the area, and the ones we chose are spectacular,” noted Mandracchia.
The play, which has no direct connection to the similarly titled 1967 song by Velvet Underground, was inspired by the book by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and intersperses themes of female dominance and sadomasochism, as the action somewhat ironically revolves around an unsophisticated actress auditioning for a role in a frustrated playwright’s Victorian-era play.
“The premise of the play is that a playwright has written a period piece and an actress comes in to audition for this period piece. So the play goes back and forth between the world that the playwright created and the modern world itself. The lines become very blurred between the period piece and the modern world,” explained Mandracchia, who earned her master’s degree in theater from Villanova University and now teaches at Penn State Abington and Delaware County Community College. “It’s a very funny play. You have two actors but you really have four characters, because they’re playing the modern people and the classic people as well. As the director, we create these characters together but the actors are the ones who are pulling double duty. They’re the real rock stars here.”
Due to some adult language and themes, the play is recommended for older audiences, Mandracchia allowed.
“There is adult language and adult conversation, and I would leave that up to the discretion of the parents whether or not they want to bring their kids. I wouldn’t recommend it,” she added with a laugh. It’s a very fun play but it’s not just a fun play. There is a point to it. Is it a dark comedy? That would depend on what your definition of a dark comedy is. It has its moments and it does tackle some very important issues and it does so in a very fun and intelligent way, that, as an audience member, you don’t even recognize as being taught a lesson … until you’re already taught.”
The play is produced by Starving Artist Prevention and B Sharp Productions, the collaborative forces behind the recent comedy nights and last March’s burlesque romp “Off Broadway on Centre,” the success of which is now financing “Venus in Fur,” the partnership’s first bona fide theatrical effort.
“For our first play at Centre Theater we wanted to do something that was relatively easy to put on, and this is not a high budget play. It takes place in a rehearsal studio, which really works well at Centre Theater. We wanted to choose something that would work with two very talented actors and spend a lot of time on character work and make sure we had enough time to give them, which is easier when you have a smaller cast,” added Mandracchia, who saw the play on Broadway in 2012.
“I thought it was just amazing when I saw it. It was nominated for a lot of Tony awards, and the lead actress, Nina Arianda, won. It was well-earned.”
Following on the heels of the previous and widely renowned Centre Theater resident Iron Age Theater, Starving Artist Prevention will offer theatrical fare that is hopefully equally challenging and entertaining, noted Mandracchia.
“Iron Age would do shows that were very intellectual and would challenge the community. Theater Horizon has kind of taken over in that direction as well. We will do our best to provide the community with high quality entertainment. Theater Horizon already does that, and we would like to provide more and make DeKalb the center of performing arts in this area.”
With a longstanding passion for musical theater, Mandracchia’s goal is to bring a grand musical to the Centre theater stage — as soon as possible.
“Musicals are what I love most,” noted Mandracchia, who directed the King of Prussia Players’ production of “Gypsy” at Shannondell last summer. “Musicals are my specialty. But they’re really expensive to put on; the rights alone are ridiculously expensive. Since this is our first show and the collaboration between Starving Artist and B Sharp is in its infancy I didn’t think we should crawl before we sprint.”