Titillating. Timely. Top-notch. It’s that Pittsburgh Public Theater production whose poster makes everyone nervously giggle or raise an eyebrow. You know, that one with the whip… Now that we have your attention…
A dramatic thunderstorm is drenching Manhattan. Lights up on a gritty audition/rehearsal room (actors know it, the one with a inconvenient pole smack in the middle the space?). It’s that place audience members who don’t work in the theater (or is that theatRE?) never see with its coffee stains, leaky windows, and scuffed linoleum. Step inside of David M. Barber’s authentically grungy set at Pittsburgh Public Theater aptly lit by Peter West. It won’t hurt a bit…
Director Jesse Berger uses the entire, confined space to advantage to both convey sexual tension while moving his cast of two around thoroughly captivating dialogue and adult situations. Initially, here’s Thomas, that take-charge playwright who would rather direct. He’s frustrated upon completing a long day of auditions for his new script. Thomas can’t cast a leading role from the women he’s seen today and is about to leave when….
Enter a raindrenched woman who REALLY wants the part. You know that one: the tardy chatterbox who takes everything just a bit “over the top” as she chaotically draws everyone’s focus. Leather bedecked Vanda’s got that giant bag of props and costume pieces (in this case, the wonderfully erotic, Victorian, and even vinyl–kinky boots–by costume designer Tilly Grimes). She’s ready to push her audition into the part itself, as sometimes happens. But, wait this actor is not what she seems. This is different…and the actress’ name is the same as her character. Hmmmm….
This play within David Ive’s play is the based on a Victorian-era erotic novel, Venus in Furs (plural in the book title) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name and writing inspired the term masochism. His story and Ives’ play take deliciously decadent turns into the sphere of sexual domination. Thomas is searching for right actress to portray Vanda Dunayev opposite another wealthy Carpathian, Severin von Kushmeski. His characters meet at a health spa in Carpathia (aka literary Transylvania). Their chance acquaintance evolves into a game of seduction, with and without the furs that both threatened the and intrigued Kushmeski as a young child. Soon, the pair reveal secrets and give permissions–including Vanda allowing Herr Kushemski to be her slave.
Thomas finally agrees to have actress Vanda read just a little, what has he got to lose? Only control, apparently. Moving into the audition, the actress Vanda drops her ditzy demeanor and voice to become character Vanda, replete with handy Victorian dress. She even mysteriously has a full copy of his script. First impressions can be deceiving…
Whitney Maris Brown is superb in both roles, shifting seamlessly from one woman to the other and with increasing agility. It’s great fun with when actress Vanda interrupts her own character with often witty or downright funny asides. Betraying what might otherwise be an actor’s inner monologue while rehearsing a role, Vanda provides yet another inside glimpse of the theater process. Brown is indeed funny with her chaotic entrance, off-kilter posturing, and “loud talker” NYC voice. Her first Vanda is a delight. Her second emerges through split-second transformations across centuries, illustrating in this one play what an actor manages over multiple theatrical runs. Brown’s ability to shift from one Vanda to the other seamlessly is a joyful testament to the actor’s craft. Soon, she’s hopping from white ruffles to black leather and garters, and back and forth repeatedly as the sparring between Vanda and Thomas carries on. What fun it would be to see this production a second time just to study Brown’s performance.
As Thomas, Christian Conn is the erudite nice guy who probably isn’t as mean in rehearsals as some directors. He calls his supportive fiancee frequently during the action. She’s that patient significant other who doesn’t ever believe when her loved one says that they are coming home in a few minutes. What you don’t know (and doesn’t Vanda try to find out) is if Thomas is really like Herr Kushmeski in the script.
Conn is well matched to Brown. About the same height, they would “make a cute couple” in another world. Conn is just right as the seemingly straight laced creative type who seems to need someone to shake them up. He likewise jumps smoothly through time and dramatic space with Brown. Conn’s subtle shifts are a lovely complement to the transitions of Brown.
As actress Vanda disappears into her character, she begins to direct the director, for what actor doesn’t want to find their own line readings, for example. As Vanda barks back after multiple directions on just one line, “HOW WAS THAT?!”
However, as we get to know Thomas the writer through his German character, Vanda claims she knows a lot about Thomas. She suggests his captivation by the erotic source material must have something to do with his own desires.
The wonderful twists and turns of the dialogue as audition becomes script and the script becomes reality provide an intense journey. It’s like Beatrice and Benedick meets Fifty Shades of Grey, except there’s now doubt who is in charge.
Soon Thomas’ control turns to submission as Vanda’s wacky assertiveness turns to being more than “bossy”. The parallels drawn between S&M and a life in the theater referenced in some lines drawing the biggest laughs. Vanda captures the reality the actor’s life: “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism. I’m in the theater.”
In this 90-minutes of adventure in one room with two actors, the audience may laugh, wonder, think, and appreciate, but also must submit to the plot’s varied mysteries. How does Vanda seem to know so much about Thomas and his betrothed? Why is she so bold when casting is the director’s call? Who IS this woman?
Of course, this show is for the grown-ups–not family fare–which makes it all even more enticing when inviting others for a night out. And one colleague of more than 90 years-old told me how she truly liked it, admiring top performances of Ives’ superbly crafted script. Yes, Venus in Fur is probably fine for anyone over 18.
Venus in Fur both entertains and provokes, taking us to the edge of reality suspended and leaving us to all that might be left: desire. Accepting all ambiguities, the audience is happy to have been on this audition. Opening night patrons were on their feet. There’s nothing to lose–the production’s sexuality is more in our own minds than on stage–and it’s a great night of fresh resonant theater to gain, right through the remarkable ending. Just check your inhibitions at the door, but do bring your imagination.
Venus in Fur continues at Pittsburgh Public Theater through through June 27. The weekend of June 18-19 features Donut Saturday and a Sunday Forum. Tickets run from $15.75 for age 26 and younger and full-time students to $55. PPT offers a great group discount of 30% for Check out the more background and run information at: PPT.org.