Thomas is a serious author, determined to bring an influential work of Victorian eroticism to life on stage. Vanda is a brassy, uncultured actress. who assumes she's auditioning for glorified "S&M porn." Which she's totally down for. His pencil-thin mustache, chiseled jawline, and rich baritone delivery channel his 19th-century protagonist, as he reads lines from classical poetry and his own play with passion and conviction. She shows up wearing lingerie and heels under a raincoat, although she assures him that "usually I'm really demure and sh!t." He's Errol Flynn by way of Don Draper, dismissing her with a suave "if you will;" she’s Miley Cyrus, rendering his expression into the more modern "Whatever."
In Hollywood, this mismatched couple, played by Bobby Bloom and Jennifer Moody Sanchez, would be destined to fall in love. Off-Broadway, where David Ives's Venus in Fur premiered before a seven-month, critically-acclaimed run on Broadway, she's destined to tie him up and make him beg for more. The new production at Trustus Theatre (which only runs through this weekend) is many things simultaneously:
- a seemingly straightforward, 2-person character study of actress and first-time director who begin to take on the personas of their fictive counterparts as they run lines from his play.
- a recreation of the infamous 1870 novella, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose surname gave us the term "masochism," and who attempted to explain dominance and submission (from a man's perspective, anyway) in terms of reverence for an all-powerful, goddess-like image of female perfection.
- a contemporary examination of gender roles, and how women are portrayed and perceived in art, and in life.
- a murky journey through primal, mythological themes of mother goddesses and retribution.
- a covertly wicked satire of the audition/rehearsal process, where a director's routine instructions to a performer (e.g. "Stand there. No, more to your left. Now do the scene again. Again. Stronger this time!") become a metaphor for S&M, and vice-versa.
- a fast-paced comedy, at times, with plenty of laughter and wit.
- a thriller in which both leads may have hidden agendas: how does Vanda know so much about Thomas's new play, and about his life? How is she able to give such a sophisticated reading, when Thomas feels she fails to understand even the basics of the character? And is Thomas simply an up-and-coming playwright with vision, or does he have way too much attachment and connection to the themes explored in his work? There's thunder, and lightning, and the way she loves him is frightening.
Bloom and Sanchez are alone on stage for nearly two hours, with no intermission (so be sure to visit the bar, and/or the facilities, just before curtain.) The play is a showcase for two talented performers, and they never disappoint. Both excel not only in embodying their primary characters but also in switching to their roles in the play-within-the play, whose own natures evolve as the show progresses. As Vanda, Sanchez is all awkward arms and legs; as Wanda, the role she reads for, those limbs become elegant, willowy, and graceful. She gets the majority of the laugh lines, while Blooms gets most of the play's eloquent ones, as when he describes how "two people meet, and ignite each other." Both are to be commended for bravery on stage, with Sanchez spending half the show in lingerie (although no more revealing than a typical swimsuit at the beach) and Bloom forced into moments of extreme emotional vulnerability.
The show is quite talky, esoteric, and abstract, with references to Tristan and Isolde, Paris and Anchises, Dionysus and the Bacchae. Clues and red herrings, are dropped throughout as to what really may be going on, but when Thomas and Vanda reach an impasse, where he decides she is wrong for the role, and she implies that she never wanted it, something compels both to finish the scene, as if their fictive counterparts' lives are more important than their own.
A surprise ending may leave some feeling empowered from an uplifting and important, if shocking, message; others may feel cheated or short-changed. Scholars of theatre, history, and literature will appreciate a return to the form's most archetypal roots, while a few may simply echo the sorority girl from the viral video, saying "Wait.... what?" I wonder if Ives began with a stage version of the original novella, then realized that it needed post-modern commentary and analysis via the framing device of the audition, and finally realized that he had painted himself into a narrative corner, with no way for a believable denouement. Or perhaps the final five minutes are the only logical way for this piece to play out, exactly as Ives intended. However, as I expressed to the cast - this isn't hard when there are only two - screw the ending if you don't like it, because for me the play was all about the journey, not the destination. It's a great chance to see two gifted young performers, capably directed by Jim O'Connor, in the roles of a lifetime, and you will definitely be talking about the issues and themes addressed on your way home.
Because of the production’s limited run, there will be two performances on the evening of Friday, Nov. 15, at 7:30 and 10 PM. For more information or reservations, call the box office at 803-254-9732, or visit www.trustus.org.
~ August Krickel