By Philip Pearce
Pacific Rep opened its Spring season last weekend with an intense two header called Venus in Fur written by David Ives.
Advance notices sprinkled with terms like “erotic” and “seduction” and the fact that the play is based on a 19th century literary shocker by the man who gave psychiatry the term “masochism” suggested I was in for something pretty gamy. Turns out the shocks were real enough but essentially mental and literary rather than visceral; the sequence of events was fascinating. Venus in Fur is not so much about the permutations of sex as it is about who gives the orders and who takes them, in all kinds of situations.
Playwright Thomas Novachek, like Ives who created him, has written an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus im Pelz. But Novachek hasn’t found anyone who’s right for his lead female character Vanda. At least not until an unscheduled and exuberantly sexy applicant in leather bursts into the audition room. She announces that her name is also Vanda and persuades Novachek, against his better judgment, to grant her a brief audition, then teases him into reading her straight through the whole script. Her claim that she’s ignorant of his play’s period and provenance soon turns out to be a pretense. She has detailed knowledge of the 1870 novel (which she airily insists is “porn”) and has somehow even got hold of a copy of Novachek’s unpublished script, learned all her lines and brought along a carrier bag full of appropriate costume changes.
The extended audition, shifting from the 19th century Vienna of Novachek’s script to here-and-now battles over interpretation and performance, becomes a structure Ives uses to build a troubling exploration of the control and submission roles we play as denizens of the 21st century. Male versus female, yes, but there’s also the relationship of the director to the auditioning actor, of the playwright to the characters he creates and then tries to keep at arm’s length, of his relationship with a fiancée repeatedly delayed and rejected on the other end of a cell phone and the final battle between reality and illusion in the discovery of who is really in charge of this audition.
The two roles in Venus in Fur are an actor’s dream, if you’ve got the technique and resources to handle them. Thomas moves from educated and assured control of the situation to gender-bending submission and Johnny Moreno doesn’t miss a nuance. Possibly even more demanding—certainly even further over the top—are the twists and turns the script gives to the provocative Vanda, a role Elena Wright acts out and acts up in a shifting series of discoveries of who she really is and what she really wants.
The pair also need to make clear without recourse to any clunky dialogue tags when they are modern-day director and actor, and when they are 19th century Severin and his nubile Viennese visitor Vanda von Dunajew. Moreno and Wright make the distinction with subtle but clear changes in diction and acting style. The funniest of these happens when the resourceful 21st century Vanda drops Thomas’s play script to improvise her own take on the 19th century Vanda à la Marlene Dietrich.
The theme and its variations are pungent and perceptive, but it’s just possible the chief attraction of this piece is just watching two actors in an anything-you-can-do contest of playing skills.
Venus in Fur plays 95 minutes without intermission, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 18 at the Circle Theatre of the Golden Bough.
Photo by Stephen Moorer