Venus In Fur is intense. It's a highly intelligent piece of playwriting that requires two intelligent and fearless actors, some faultless timing, and expert, nuanced direction. Thankfully, in one of its first West Coast productions, the play is done justice and then some by director Casey Stangl and two top-notch actors, Brenda Meaney and Henry Clarke.
David Ives's complex, psycho-sexual (and very funny) drama drew raves on Broadway in 2012, particularly for its lead actress, Nina Arianda, who took home the Tony Award for Best Actress that year for her electric performance as Vanda. Having seen the Broadway production, I was admittedly a little nervous for A.C.T. and whoever they cast in the role because of the inevitable comparisons to a performance that was easily one of the best of the last decade. But as it turned out, I didn't need to be, and Ms. Meaney is just as talented and alive on stage as Arianda in this career-making role, if (maybe) a degree or two less fiery.
The play centers on an audition a playwright and first-time director, Thomas, sits in a fluorescent-lit rehearsal space finishing up a day of unfruitful auditions of actresses for a role in an adaptations he's done of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 proto-S&M novel Venus in Furs. As we learn in the course of the play, Thomas is fascinated with Sacher-Masoch, whose name was borrowed to coin the term "masoschism" in the 1890s, and who wrote this novel to help explain his own fetishistic desire to be beaten and dominated by a woman, particular one wearing furs, inspired by a single childhood incident involving his aunt.
Vanda storms in, late for an audition that it turns out she never had an appointment for, and proceeds to cajole Thomas into letting her read for the part, in costume a few of which she's drug along, after some thrift-store shopping, to get into the role. The part she reads for in the play-within-the-play is also named Vanda, and over the course of the next 90 minutes, her own identity begins to blend with the part she's playing, even though she constantly switches between American English and an affected Continental accent throughout to indicate who's speaking. Thomas, also, gets into the role of Severin, affecting an accent of his own and throwing on a period jacket Vanda brought along for him.
Ultimately, the crux of the play comes in realizing not just what a terrific actress Vanda is, but what she's after besides a part in Thomas's play. And it's here that Ives's script takes its most thrilling, and sexual twists, and where the layers of conflict begin to unfurl. As hilarious as it is seeing Vanda oscillate between her own, intrinsic mania and the commanding, statuesque Vanda of the play-within-the-play, we end up also getting a master class in BDSM, dom-sub relationships, and in playwriting itself. It's hard to say by the end if we're even watching a moment in our present day, or if these two characters have been elevated, suddenly, to the realm of gods and legends.
As Thomas, Clarke is perhaps more animated and fearless than Hugh Dancy was in the same role, and skillfully holds his own beside Meaney as she commands the audience's attention throughout the play. It's performed without an intermission in a brisk-paced, intense 90 minutes, and as such it ends up feeling like a breathless ride and Stangl's direction deserves special praise for accomplishing that pace with nary a missed beat or clumsy pause.
With just two more productions left, this could turn out to be the surprise gem of A.C.T.'s current season, and I can't recommend it enough.
Venus in Fur plays through April 13, pending any extensions, and you can purchase tickets here.