Reviewed by Stephen Radosh
VENUS IN FUR, the beautifully written play by David Ives is a fascinating and engrossing, if slightly enigmatic, two character (or is it 4 character?) play. In a tantalizing mix of comedy, suspense and heated eroticism, VENUS IN FUR feels even more relevant today than when it opened on Broadway in 2011. Skillfully directed by Ron Celona, this play which focuses on the power of eroticism and the erotic nature of power, manages the frequent shifts in tonality so well that each change, no matter how sudden, feels absolutely right.
A lot of the credit for making the uninterrupted 90 minutes of VENUS IN FUR the mesmerizing piece of theatre that it is must go to the exceptional pair of actors, Angela Sauer and Patrick Zeller, who maneuver through the ebbs and flows of the play with all the skills of 2 champion surfers. They generated so much sexual heat onstage that I was sure the fire sprinklers would burst into life at any moment.
As the play opens, Vanda (Ms. Sauer) barges into the small, cramped, dingy basement room which has been converted into a small, cramped, dingy rehearsal space. She is there to audition for Thomas’ new play VENUS IN FUR, adapted from an1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. But due to the storm outside and a million other excuses she is over 2 hours late and enters with an expletive ladened tirade on a variety of subjects including the heavy rain outside, the subway and the pervert who was eagerly feeling her up while riding the crowded train.. Having had an unsuccessful day auditioning a variety of women for the role of Vanda (yes, the actress and the character have the same name) Thomas, the play’s director and author is exhausted and only wants to get out of there.
But Vanda is determined to get her shot at the role and tries a variety of tactics to get Thomas to stay and listen. She begins apologetically which quickly morphs in tone; first into sweetness and charm and what amounts to basically begging and then in the blink of an eye she is just shy of ordering him to listen. But Thomas is determined to get out of there and after repeated “NOs” and the classic audition rejection line “We’re looking for someone a little different, she finally gets through to him when she almost wearily states…”Someone who isn’t me” and finishes by saying “I’m too young, I’m too old. I’m too big, I’m too small. My résumé’s not long enough. O.K.” Soon enough she begins her audition with the actual author/director as her scene partner.
In one of the evening’s most startling and brilliant moment, Ms. Sauer makes an instantaneous and total transformation from her very first word as the Vanda of the script. Totally gone is the somewhat awkward and desperate Vanda the actress. Like a feat of brilliant magic she is instantaneously and totally replaced vocally and physically with the regal and commanding Vonda of the script. It is the speed and totality that makes the moment one that sent shivers down my spine. It is clear from her very first line as the Vanda she is auditioning to be that her performance will be not only good but transcendant.
It is at this point, with Thomas and Vanda reading the roles of Kushemski, a nobleman with a taste for pain going back to his childhood and Vanda Dunayev, the mysterious woman he meets and immediately begs and grovels to be under her control that the games both sexual and psychological go into high gear. It is also the point where the lines between reality and fiction begin to seriously blur. Is it Kushemski who is giving up control to Vanda Dunayev, or, is it in fact Thomas who is finally allowing a side of him he could only express in his plays to emerge as he falls deeper and deeper into the constant psychological and sexual assault exerted by Vanda. In fact, the play goes as far as saying that it is the one who is seemingly being dominated who is actually the one in control.
Angela Sauer gives a magnificent performance filled with nuance and shading as Vonda. Her rapid fire switches from Vonda the character in one breath to Vonda the actress in the next asking for motivation or a blocking change are amazing to see. Ms. Sauer has created two very distinct people and the audience instantly knows which one is speaking when. This is not an easy task to pull off and Ms. Sauer does it flawlessly. But no matter what light is cast on the play by Ms. Sauer’s radiant performance, it is also a performance shrouded in mind-bending enigmas. There is the question of Vonda the actress herself. Who is she? She claims she had an audition but no such audition appears on any schedule. And if she didn’t have an audition, just how did she get her hands on a copy of the script? And how did she manage to learn practically the entire script by merely looking it over on the subway as she tells Thomas she did? And what are the odds that an actress named Vonda is auditioning for the role of a character named Vonda? Added to all of that, is the question of Vonda the actress’ performance as Vonda Dunayev. With very little acting experience, a fact underscored by the resume she hands Thomas and her confusion of stage basics like Stage Left and Stage Right, and with no serious guidance from Thomas as director, how does she manage to be exactly the Vonda for whom he had been looking? And where did she get those costumes (with labels saying they were made in the 1800’s) which she so casually yanks out of her bag? And how is it that the costumes she has for Thomas fit perfectly in size and in style? And what about those claps of thunder marking her entrance and various other actions Vonda takes throughout the play? And how does Vonda know practically everything there is to know about Stacey, Thomas’ fiancée? Had Vonda met and befriended Stacey as she not too convincingly states or is the answer far more ethereal and other worldly? Depending on your interpretation of the meanings and/or honesty behind her character’s actions, these questions may or may not be answered to your satisfaction. But they are sure to keep a lively discussion going amongst those who see the play for some time to come.
Mr. Zeller’s performance as Thomas is every bit as strong as that of Ms. Sauer. She comes into the play like a house afire, while his opening scenes are firmly rooted in the reality of an exhausted director being stalked by an actor after a day spent producing no results. But I am happy to say that even in those early moments of the play he does not become a prop for Vonda nor allow her to place any teeth marks on him nor on any part of the set within 6 feet of him in any direction! In the second half of the play Mr. Zeller too is given larger than life moments as Thomas’ consciousness and awareness of who he is expands, giving him moments of acting pyrotechnics which are as bright and as honest as those given by Ms. Sauer. As situations heat up in the latter parts of the play, watching these two performers go at it and at each other is like watching the gears of a finely crafted Swiss watch meshing smoothly and precisely and in perfect rhythm.
Special kudos must be given to Jimmy Cuomo of whose work I have long been a fan. The set looked so authentic you would have sworn that much of it was actually made of Concrete. The illusion it created was so strong, it brought back memories of several rehearsal spaces in which I had the misfortune of working.
The Lighting Design by Moira Wilkie Whitaker and Randy Hansen’s Sound Design were both of the same high quality that runs throughout this entire production.
For a highly entertaining and thought-provoking evening in the theatre, I urge you to not miss out on seeing CVREP’s Production of VENUS IN FUR now through November 19, 2017. Go to www.cvrep.org for further details or to order tickets