Playwright David Ives’ play “Venus in Fur”, is scheduled to become the most produced play in America during 2013-2014 according to American Theatre magazine that keeps track of such things. I’m not surprised, having seen the Broadway production at the Samuel J. Friedman theatre in 2011, starring Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy, with Arianda nabbing a 2012 Tony for Best Actress in a Play.
The vehicle is a perfect fit for Regional theatres and smaller professional houses. The components for success are all present, ready and waiting: two characters, a dynamite script by a top-tier playwright, the subject of which delves into such highly charged issues as S&M, bondage, sex, domination, a whiff of infidelity, and the eternal battle between men and women for supremacy and power. What more can a play ask for? Now, all that is needed for theatres that will produce the play are two inspired actors and a brilliant director to pull the whole deal off.
San Diego Repertory Theatre’s co-founder and Artistic director Sam Woodhouse, along with co-director Kim Rubinstein, or should I say “Woodstein” (taking a page from “All the President’s Men”) have solved that worrisome little talent problem. “Venus in Fur” is an actor’s play, and “Woodstein” has two inspired performers in Caroline Kinsolving and Jeffrey Meek whose stage chemistry is just down right palpable and electrifying.
The story revolves around Thomas Novachek, the writer/director of a new play, which he adapted from the 1870 novel “Venus in Furs” by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masocher. As the lights come up Thomas is on his cel phone talking to his girlfriend complaining about the shortcomings of all the actresses who showed up today to audition for the lead character of Wanda von Dunayev. Suddenly we hear a banging door, which announces the arrival of an excitable, disorganized, new actress Vanda Jordon who has come to audition. She embodies every quality and trait that Thomas abhors. She is crude to a fault, needy, compliant, desperate, persistent, persuasive, and very talented.
She convinces him, however, to read through his entire play. She will read Wanda, a character that combines both elegance and decadence, and he will read Severin von Kushemski, an aristocrat used to getting his own way. During the course of this reading Vonda displays astonishing insights into the novel and her character, thus shifting the balance of power from the director to the actress. It’s a triumph of the will. Yes, but, for whom? For Vanda? Thomas? Wanda? or, von Kushemski? What a delicious dilemma to ponder.
One of the most appealing aspects of this “play within a play”, so to speak, as devised by brilliant playwright Ives is the opportunity it offers Kinsolving and Meek to dig deep into their sensual characters delivering absolutely deliciously nuanced and impressive performances. It’s a delight to watch two professionals go at it with intelligence and gusto, as each seeks to validate their power. No wonder the play and performances resonate with audiences everywhere. Men and women have been having this battle since Adam and Eve.
In the technical department co-directors Woodhouse and Rubinstein have elected to stage the play in the round. It’s a bold decision by “Woodstein” as this staging motif is one that can really challenge actors. In the round actors are “all alone and naked”. There is no hiding behind a proscenium or set pieces. The performance requires total concentration once the lights come up. In this “Venus in Fur” production, the highly charged on stage action fairly crackles with electricity generated by these two splendid actors. Comparisons are always odious at best, but I wouldn’t exchange these two actors for any that have performed the roles.
The creative team for the production led by Woodhouse and Rubinstein features a minimalist set design by Robin Sanford Roberts that provides maximum space for the actors to create their magic. The lighting design by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz allows the costumes designed by Jennifer Sanford Roberts to be seen. It’s a very impressive production, indeed.
“Venus in Fur” runs at San Diego Repertory’s Lyceum stage at Horton Plaza through December 8, 2013.