So much must work perfectly in David Ives’ Broadway hit Venus in Fur in order for it to be a successful staging, not least of which is the alchemy between the play’s two actors. A big key to that lies in the reaction that the character of Thomas, a playwright/director, has when Vanda, an actress, finally reads from his new play.
It’s a moment that Chris Hury delivers with dead-on precision in Circle Theatre’s regional premiere, in a knockout start to the group’s 2014 season, and it’s a beautiful reaction to the way Allison Pistorius transforms when she reads the text.
Before that, there was good reason to wonder if such a connection could be made, as Ives has set it up. Thomas had been auditioning actresses for the role of Wanda in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s scandalous 1870 novella Venus in Furs (that author’s last name is where we get “masochism,” if that gives you a hint), when in walks Vanda, late and lugging a huge bag and a litany of excuses. He tries to convince her that auditions are over, but she won’t have it. She has brought along costumes and isn’t going to let this opportunity pass.
From his opening phone conversation with a talent agency, we can glean that he’s a sexist over what, we find out later, is a romantic core. He assumes from the get-go that she won’t be right for the part. That is, until she finally reads the part, in a “continental” accent. She pulls off quite a feat of changing expectations.
He’s transfixed. It’s a moment that conveys jaw-dropping astonishment without Hury physically showing signs that his jaw has dropped. While it’s subtle, there’s no doubt that he’s hooked. It’s no wonder, considering Pistorius’ skill with the change — it’s a transition she effortlessly moves into and out of throughout the rest of the 90-minute intermissionless play.
Thomas reads the part of Kusiemski, and she Wanda, both of them popping in and out of their play-within-a-play characters with the same ease that Pistorius slips out of a lacy 1870s dress she has brought out for the occasion, covering up a black leather dominatrix outfit (costumes by Sarah Tonemah).
Vanda is clearly not a person who can be easily figured out, and like the masochistic themes in the original book, for the audience, the push-pull between the two characters becomes a fascinating and funny study of personality, sexual politics and getting the upper hand.
Krista Scott keeps it engaging with whip-cracking direction that hits at the heart of the who’s-on-top dynamic. Another telling moment happens when Thomas, who is obviously smitten, lays on the divan in Clare Floyd DeVries’ spare, audition-room set, like a patient on a psychoanalyst’s couch. Except he’s the one trying to figure out the doc.
Who will win? The ending takes it to a surprising place, which wouldn’t have worked without two performances in which the actors are keenly aware of which side is serving the ball. Turns out, Vanda and Thomas aren’t Tristan and Isolde, or Francesca and Paolo, to use two references from Ives’ play. They’re something that goes beyond the power of instant attraction, and it can only help Thomas grow as a person and as an artist.
Is there any better quality in a partner than sexy wit? With Venus in Fur, you’re likely to find a perfect match, maybe even “the one.”