MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Taste the Whip: Seattle Rep’s Venus in Fur

Michael Tisdale and Gillian Williams in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Venus in Fur; photo by Chris Bennion.

Michael Tisdale and Gillian Williams in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Venus in Fur; photo by Chris Bennion.

It’s not just the topic of sexual power dynamics combined with S&M role play that makes it seem as if David Ives has taken on something risqué in his Tony-nominated Venus in Fur, which premiered in 2010. He dares a lot formally by writing an evening-length, two-character play set in a drab rehearsal room.

In terms of ambition, he dares even more in his obvious desire to probe the personal politics and psychological complexity of our “theatrical” selves: the rotating, evolving, ever-variable selves we present in our daily encounters.

Seattle Repertory Theatre’s staging — a co-production with Arizona Theatre Company — offers a smart, riveting, often unsettling take on Ives’s much-hyped play. It makes for a largely persuasive theater experience, though without managing to overcome all the dramaturgical stumbling blocks in the script — most of all, the unconvincing swerve that marks the drama’s culmination.

Ives is, to start with, a masterful writer of dialogue, attuned to the ways actors manipulate their subtexts as they monitor and mirror the variabilities of their stage partners. In the ongoing, intermissionless duologue that is the basic structure of Venus in Fur, his two characters assume and cast off multiple identities that continually keep the audience guessing about what the real stakes are.

Venus in Fur starts in quasi-sitcom mode: a frustrated playwright/director, Thomas Novachek, rails against the limitations of the women he’s seen audition for the lead in his new stage adaptation of Venus in Furs, the once-scandalous novella published in 1870 by the Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (part of the first volume of a large-scale fictional cycle he had planned under the overall title Legacy of Cain).

In blusters Vanda Jordan in a scenery-chewing entrance. She’s an actress who presents herself as desperate for the part — so desperate, she ends up convincing the reluctant Thomas to stay on and see her audition, even though she’s hours late and all the others have already left.

But Ives cleverly uses the familiar patterns of lightweight humor to disarm his audience, to set up expectations that repeatedly trip us up — exactly mirroring the dance of role-playing and sudden change of tack Vanda stage manages vis-a-vis Thomas.

Sibyl Wickersheimer has designed an imposingly affectless rehearsal loft — we’re told it’s been converted from a former sweatshop (its identity around the time Sacher-Masoch’s novella was written) — and tilts it to an angle, adding yet another layer of obliquity. Geoff Korf’s lighting starts with unfriendly late afternoon light and descends into terrifying darkness

Thomas wants to be appreciated for having written what he believes to be an important play — his Fur is a gloss on the “furs” of Sacher-Masoch and the mirror of Titian. He loathes being misunderstood for tackling the trendy “issues” of the day. Vanda pretends to be clueless about his artistic aspirations, describing the novella that’s the basis for his play as “S&M porn” and hastily showing off the up-to-date dominatrix outfit (Harmony Arnold’s witty costume design) that she picked out for her audition.

Titian, Venujs with Mirror, c. 1555 (National Gallery of Art)

Titian, Venus with Mirror, c. 1555 (National Gallery of Art)

Director Shana Cooper sustains the slow burn of tension that underlies the rapidly shifting scenario as Thomas starts to realize Vanda has been dissembling and is intimately familiar with the nuances of Sacher-Masoch. Like a staged Droste effect, ironies begin to proliferate within the play-within-a-play setup. Vanda the over-emoting, stressed-out New Yawk actress suddenly seems to be more authentic when she casts her “real” self aside to play the fictional role of the nineteenth-century, velvet-gown-clad Wanda von Dunajew.

Ives’s play is completely dependent on the effectiveness of his lead actress. Gillian Williams gives an untrammeled and multifaceted performance, toggling back and forth between “acting” and — to the evident unease yet fascination of Thomas — taking over his role as the playwright and director. It’s also an intensely physically aware performance, her shifts in tone mirrored by a virtuosic range of gestures and physical expression.

As Thomas, Michael Tisdale (like Gilliam Williams, making his Seattle Rep debut) doesn’t project the sheer arrogance needed at the beginning to give substance to Vanda’s fury — he’s too fussy — but grows more convincing in the transformation into Sacher-Masoch’s alter ego Severin von Kusiemski, which he willingly undergoes.

(l to r) Gillian Williams and Michael Tisdale; photo by Chris Bennion.

Gillian Williams and Michael Tisdale; photo by Chris Bennion.

The real interest of the dramatic arc lies in its unpredictability: shocks of recognition intensify and begin to align Thomas’s script with the power play developing between him and Vanda, but Ives counterpoints this with a movement away from the realism at the start of the play toward an ambivalent surrealism.

And there the chief difficulty lies. As Vanda’s rage gathers righteous feminist force and we’re led to expect a straightforward revenge plot, Ives changes the fundamental tone again — and makes her an archetype, an avatar of the pagan classical world.

But it ends up evoking a bit of old-fashioned stagecraft: a dea ex machina come to deliver a moral lesson for our times. The rattling thunder of a storm raging outside (Robertson Witmer’s atmospheric sound design) isn’t enough to pull off the transformation.

Venus in Fur runs through Sunday, March 9, at Seattle Rep at Seattle Center.

(c) 2014 Thomas May – All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, theater

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