Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review: Venus in Fur by TheatreWorks

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2014 at 11:31 AM

click to enlarge ISAIAH DOWNING
  • Isaiah Downing
That Thomas Novachek and Vanda Jordan don’t quite know what they’re getting themselves into when auditioning Vanda for Thomas’s adaptation of Venus in Fur is not to slight them, nor their gifted creator, playwright David Ives.

How could the mischief they create for each other ever be expected, or for that matter, avoided? The script they read from will transform their drab rehearsal room irresistibly into an enchanted forest of 19th-century desire and taboo. Its modus operandi is masochism, that controlled application of pain and medievalism involving extreme role reversals, bondage, and heightened sexual dominance.

As if following forbidden breadcrumbs, Thomas and Vanda scamper headlong into one world while leaving behind another, thinking they have everything in perspective, in focus, and under control. They learn otherwise.

“It’s porn!” Vanda chirps merrily of their source, a famous novel by Leopold Sacher-Masoch (1869). “No, it’s world literature!” Thomas passionately counters and, as we discover, they are both right.

Masochism is the gentler side of the sadomasochism equation and not the sometimes monstrous activity pioneered, so to speak, by the 18th-century French aristocrat and libertine, the Marquis de Sade. This distinction should be kept clearly in mind. In Venus in Fur, sharply directed by Murray Ross, there is none of the bloodletting, gouging, or merciless torment that landed Sade in various French prisons, and finally an asylum. (For those details, see the late Maurice Lever’s wonderful Sade: A Biography).

Instead we are taken down a seductive path by Ives toward alarming and often wise revelations about power, equality, and of all things in a sex-comedy, civil society. Ives' casual way of having Thomas and Vanda segue out of a 19th-century text and into the now as they pause to reflect or stage a scene exposes many assumptions that afflict and form their own kind of bondage in our time. In Thomas’s case a forthcoming — or rather impending — marriage to his fiancé Stacy has all the snares and piercing discomforts one could find in matrimony to any Victorian snoot of Sacher-Masoch’s era. The puritanism of the past has resurfaced as a PhD in the present in pedigreed, New England Stacy, and Thomas will merely serve as a prop to her whims and games of social show-and-tell, and he knows it. (Vanda makes sure of that).

The play itself, and Thomas’s connection to it, develops as a kind of antidote to this whole Stacy thing, as something he must rid himself of if the lessons he learns in rehearsal are to be taken as seriously in life. A teacher/student configuration rules the masochistic code of conduct as often as a master/slave one does, and Venus in Fur under Ross’s direction shifts from one to the other with spellbinding ease.

In the meantime, as Thomas and Vanda explore Sacher-Masoch’s obsessions, the action onstage prompts many questions that cover a range of significance, largely due to the fine performances by Carley Cornelius as Vanda and Jon Barker as Thomas. It captures and illuminates the mercurial process of acting that we often take for granted, and the level of energy and commitment necessary for making a script come alive.

Vanda is a very good actress, and Cornelius impresses mightily in her ability to show us that. Like her counterpart Barker as Thomas, she is young enough to be adventuresome, yet old enough to tackle or subdue Vanda’s wildest impulses. There isn’t a single false note or moment’s hesitation from Cornelius — deadly in playscript of this kind — to stymie or derail our fascination with Vanda, even though Ives does shuffle a bit in assigning her clear motives. Barker meets her at every turn, and subtly ups the ante when called upon to do so.

(An interesting side note, Ross was no doubt alert to Cornelius’ successful run in Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman in Chicago, a play very similar in its demands to Venus in Fur. As in Dutchman, an attempted return to Eden “can be very dangerous, very destructive,” Ross warns in a program note, and both works play that out.)

There are times in Venus in Fur that you’ll never hear more intuitively sensed and fluid dialog, but the ambiguities Ives fixes to Vanda to create a feeling of mystery and menace tend to backfire in unnecessary confusion. Ross and company do all they can to cover or amend Ives' misuse of these details, and Cornelius’ Dionysian vigor goes far in preserving Vanda’s mystique. But a key ingredient is left out somewhere, and we wait for some gesture or utterance of psychological truth to understand Vanda. It doesn’t come, though Ives supplies her with a plausibly violent crescendo to make up for it.

Still, for all its racy, leather-clad cosmopolitanism, Venus in Fur is an impressionistic work, and seems at times a better play than it is given credit for. There is no underestimating the value of having our less-visible assumptions exposed for intelligent questioning and evaluation. This play proves that our time is not so different from Sacher-Masoch's in crucial ways, though we pretend it isn't, that we are more flexible, democratic and advanced.

And when served such a message so delectably, how can you top that?

Venus in Fur, through April 13. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 pm; Saturday matinees (March 29th through April 5th and 12th) 2pm; Sundays at 4pm. 527 S. Tejon St. Tickets: $35, free for UCCS students. Reservations advised. For more call 255-3232 or visit theatreworkscs.org.

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