Words are everything. Everyone wants everything and words are everything. The profundity of such statements and similar can be found in Venus Theatre’s edgiest work to date. Concluding their 14th season with their 50th production, Venus is proud to present Virus Attacks Heart, a new work by Shannon Murdoch. In alignment with the company’s mission statement of setting flight to the voices of women, this production features a strong female character coping with life in the face of mortality. Artistic Director and Founder of Venus Deborah Randall directs the play’s world premier as the conclusion to a truly intense and fierce season. The play itself falls off the beat of your average non-linear performance and shows theatergoers the wonders that await in the space between.
Sound Designer Neil McFadden, working in tandem with Lighting Designer Amy Rhodes, creates a cumulative soundscape that infuses itself into the atmosphere of the performance. McFadden’s overlap between scenes— like the subtle way the hospital monitor’s beep pulses as the undercurrent in the heavy thumping base of the club music— creates a connective tether. An aural bridge bonds one moment to the next, pulling the audience through the experience without ever allowing them to gain their footing. This augments the intentional disorientation of the performance; the emotional instability swelling and crashing in waves on top of the well constructed chaos that serve as the design elements.
Rhodes also serves as the show’s Set Designer. Her minimalist approach allows for the show’s focus to revolve around the intense messages buried between character interactions as well as the character’s developed story arc. The tiered structure of the centerpiece, which serves as both bedroom and nightclub, is functional in its simplicity and covertly wrapped in symbolism. The characters make several ascension and decisions up and down the tiers of the centerpiece, often coinciding with moments of erupting emotions or deep melancholic contemplative soliloquy. Rhode’s use of the intimate space brings the drama of the characters right into the audience’s faces; a hallmark of productions at Venus where the pathos of the character’s path is never more than an arm’s length away.
Playwright Shannon Murdoch captures the essence of chaos, swirls in life’s elements of crazy, and blends emotions into a verbal fury; the result of which is a messy, albeit beautiful, pulp of human existence trafficked across the stage in 90 minutes time. Despite the non-linear approach to the production a story falls into place; though at times the segments feel disjointed from one another it is clear that they are connected to a bigger picture. Murdoch’s writing is as erratic and spontaneous as the emotional fits that her characters experience; akin to madness yet completely sane simultaneously. There is a frantic urgency in Murdoch’s tale that often explodes from moments of trauma, though in a silent fashion. Some of the most still moments on stage— when characters are delivering deeply harrowing stories of their pasts— are the most dynamically destructive in the performance.
Director Deborah Randall succeeds in exposing the audience to sensuality and sexuality without detracting from the heavier messages that are contained within the play’s main themes. There are scenes that border on the pornographic but they exist within the context of the performance and never feel gratuitous. If anything those moments of extreme sensuality enhance the intensity of the characters inabilities to accept mortality; throwing caution to the wind and experience fun regardless of the result. Randall creates beautiful moments between the actors throughout the production and the pacing is perfection. Never once does the momentum of the story falter nor does it retard or regress even when things slow from their frenetic pace.
Beatrice (Karen Rosnizeck) and Jamie (Joe Feldman) have stories that are inseparably intertwined; a symbiotic, albeit mutually parasitic, entanglement that drives the heartbeat of the performance. Rosnizeck and Feldman have a sharp understanding of spatial relationships, not only of their own bodies and how they move about the space, but in how they relate to one another and the way their bodies when conjoined move as one in tandem with the pacing of the performance. Their combined stage presence is an extremity that grips the audience like hot iron glowing white; painful and yet strikingly beautiful with an inexplicable intensity that sears at the soul.
Rosnizeck, as the older woman of 43, gives a jarring performance that is versatile and shocking. Bursting from one extreme to the other, she plays her wild and unruly tendencies against her more subdued moments; a phenomenal characterization whose internal trauma become externalized in a spastically gorgeous fashion. There is something unidentifiable about her portrayal; a curiously captivating notion that compels the audience to experience her character’s story as she slips from loud explosive moments to more quieted and subdued situations throughout the show.
Feldman gives an equally engaging dynamic performance, though his extremes play out in a polar opposite fashion. While Rosnizeck’s character spends most of existence lashing out both physically and vocally, Feldman is the mellower of the two characters. There are moments, however, when Feldman spirals into an irrevocable verbal oblivion and for a moment words lose all meaning; one of the most stunning moments in the show. His ability to not only feel the rhythm of the club’s music but exist as if it were his own internal rhythm is inspiring.
The play is powerful; the utter chaos of it a titillating treat that encourages clarity amid confusion. Inspiring emotions in the face of mortality; this play is a sharp and poignant way to end the season at Venus Theatre.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission