VENUS IN FUR

Posted: February 15, 2014 in Uncategorized

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Seattle Repertory Theatre has done it again! Their followup production to the thoughtful and engaging, “A Great Wilderness,” is the equally electrifying, and dare I say, titillating and  arousing, “Venus in Fur.” 

Adapted for the stage by David Ives from the scandalous, 1870 S&M novel, “Venus in Furs” (note the plural) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, (from whose name was coined the term “masochism”), the play received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play in 2013. And honestly, given the complexity and quality of the writing, it is a shame that it didn’t win, but I think the award went to Christopher Durang, one of my all-time favorite playwrights, so I’m OK with that, I guess…

Set in modern day New York City, the play opens with the character, Thomas Novachek, (played by Michael Tisdale), a frustrated playwright-director, who is trying to cast his new play, which also happens to be an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. 

Thus, from the very beginning, the complex layering of the script’s composition begins to take a meta-theatrical form via a structure-en-abyme in which the play that the audience has come to see is the play that is just now being cast, — a bit of theatre-within-theatre, “if you will,” that results in producing a self-conscious  and atemporal effect. (How very French! – even though Ives is from Chicago and Sacher-Masoch was Austrian…)

But to get back to the plot, Thomas is just wrapping up a day of unsuccessful auditions when Vanda Jordan (played by Gillian Williams) comes bouncing through the door, — a whirlwind of drama and chaos; in short, a hot mess!

Vanda is late for her audition, even though her name doesn’t even appear on Thomas’ list, and she seems ill-prepared for her reading, having supposedly just glanced at the sides, which we later find out was the entire script, in the train on her way there. And although at first Thomas is reluctant to let her audition, as he is tired and ready to go have dinner with his fiancée, ultimately, Vanda succeeds in persuading him to let her do so, and it is here where the play begins in earnest. 

Vanda, the character in Ives’ play who is auditioning for Wanda von Dunajew, the character in Thomas’ play/Sacher-Masoch’s novel, immediately gets the director’s attention as her delivery seems so natural and insightful, and what should have been a 3-5 minute long audition turns into an all-night power play between the two.

Undoubtedly, Williams, who plays Vanda, is by far superior to her co-star Tisdale, who plays Thomas. Part of this is due somewhat, of course, to just how well-written the role is for the female lead. The change in character when Williams is playing Vanda Jordan versus when she is Wanda von Dunajew is quite striking. And Williams easily goes back and forth between the two.

Tisdale, on the other hand, takes some getting used to. His performance in the beginning of the play is too affected and effeminate for the role, but once he gets going in his role as Severin von Kusiemski, his delivery improves. However, I do believe that the Rep could have found a stronger actor for the role in general — not to say that Tisdale was bad, but he just was not on the same level as Williams.

As the play progresses, the boundaries become more and more blurred between truth and fiction, between time and space, and between who these characters are to us as an audience as well as to each other. It is here that Ives reaches the peak of his brilliance in terms of playwriting.  

Although just an “audition,” eventually the two toss away the scripts from which they have been reading and just become the characters from the Austrian novel. The realism that had been established is abandoned as well, and we eventually find ourselves in a hybrid space, somewhere between New York City, 19th century Austria, Antiquity, and a mythological time, where ancient gods rule, especially the goddess, Aphrodite. Ultimately, what Ives gives us is a mediation on love and theatre in which he blurs the lines of character, time, and space, and makes this adaptation of a novel much more than just an adaptation. 

Director, Shana Cooper handles the material quite well, though I would still say that she could go further in terms of playing on the meta-theatricality of which I spoke earlier. Scenic designer, Sibyl Wickersheimer, also built an amazing set, and lighting designer, Geoff Korf did some amazing work with the lightning crashes and rain drops. 

My only criticism here is that I think I would rather see this show in a more intimate space, rather than in the large house that is the Seattle Repertory. A two-character show  that is set in what is basically a rehearsal studio just seems like it would play much better in a smaller venue. But as I said, nevertheless, it is a great production due primarily to great writing a very talented leading lady.  

“Venus in Fur” plays through March 9 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. For tickets and info, call 206-443-2222 or visit http://www.SeattleRep.org.

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