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Theater review: Venus in Fur

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All the words that might tempt you to see Venus in Fur — comedy, sex, role reversal, erotic literature, sado-masochism — do apply, but the biggest draw turns out to be the acting. There's more situation than plot, and though the subject matter is sex, Vermont Stage Company's production isn't salacious. The play by David Ives flirts with revealing the meaning of the world he constructs, then settles for teasing us. But the story does demonstrate the subtle changes that tip the balance of power in a relationship.

Vanda, an unpolished actress, arrives late to an audition for playwright-director Thomas' adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs. The playwright is about to leave and tries to dispatch Vanda, but she is oddly, playfully insistent on reading. So what if no one else is there? Thomas can read with her, she suggests. By coincidence, she has the same name as the character in the play. And she just happens to have a period dress in her bag.

The ditzy actress thinks she knows the material. "It's masochism, right? Kind of porny? Pornish?" That explains her first-choice audition garment, a leather bustier she reveals when she takes off her raincoat. Intellectual Thomas is at pains to explain the subtleties and significance of his material; it's far from pornography. And so the play begins to explore the power and sexual dynamics within a series of pairs: director and actress, male and female, Thomas and Vanda, and the script's characters, Kushemski and Vanda.

Video courtesy of Vermont Stage Company

Thomas and Vanda make gradual transitions as they find themselves exploring the nature of dominance and submission in relationships. There are small, subtle cruelties well short of the extremes of punishment. The paradox of control is both funny and perplexing. The characters demonstrate power in a submissive role, a form of surrender in a dominant one, and sensuality in both.

The comic aspects emerge, but the subject matter has inspired director Cristina Alicea to take a quiet, respectful approach, the better to showcase the skills of the two actors. Alicea delicately persuades us that what we might dismiss as neurotic excess is actually far subtler. The gradual transition to the very first traces of pain or power is emphasized in this production. Thomas doesn't throw out his arms and beg, "Hurt me." He looks carefully, as if crossing a busy street. He thinks about what he wants and wonders if Vanda can give it to him. He remains wary but finds himself on his knees.

Deanna McGovern's Vanda enters as a ditz, all flailing arms and legs, complaining about everything that made her late in a way that amplifies her incompetence instead of excusing it. She's hopelessly overmatched, and Thomas is sure to dismiss her. Yet there is something electric about her. McGovern captivates the audience just a little before her character convinces Thomas to give her a chance.

McGovern laces calculation with naïveté as she tugs us along on what seems to be an impulsive joy ride. It's a special pleasure to see her showing Vanda thinking on her feet. The play takes its first thrilling turn when the discombobulated actress sits down to read her lines, and what comes out is an imperial aristocrat, complete with impeccable Austrian accent.

McGovern continues to unleash dazzling capabilities, not the least of which are the delicious changes when she breaks character to interrogate Thomas about his play. McGovern captures the humor of these lurches from profound to banal, and adds a little spice by demonstrating her own pleasure in stylishly snapping in and out of character.

Jordan Gullikson plumbs many layers for Thomas. He's coolly contemptuous of the shallow actresses who've previously auditioned for him, but this armor slowly falls away. His curiosity about Vanda is so great that he fails to notice she's collecting more confessions from him than she's making to him.

Gullikson is masterful at portraying his character's progress, one tiny transition at a time. He starts out stiffly reading lines with Vanda, his fingers tracing the words of the script. When she urges him to try an accent, his first effort is clumsy and superficial. But as the audition continues, Gullikson's accent becomes natural, then silky, as his bearing shifts to evoke a 19th-century nobleman.

This play studies shifts in power, and a review shouldn't disclose all the surprises. But Gullikson transforms many times, landing in each case with a cat's unerring balance and astonishing ease.

Ives seems content with an ending so ambiguous that it very nearly cheats us. The ending matters because the play consists of a slippery reality in which Thomas and Vanda behave both naturally and supernaturally. We anticipate an eventual grand coherence, but Ives perhaps hopes we'll be sated by the pure comic oddity of it all. The story can be viewed either as Thomas' imagination come to life or as Vanda's vision of an actor's ultimate revenge on a director. It's a neat enough trick that both ideas are possible.

Costumes are the show's weak point, but other technical production elements are excellent. Alicea's decision to stage the play with an alley-style layout puts the actors under close inspection from an audience in close proximity. The arrangement may result in less heat than the director intended, but it does impose a clinical form of observation.

All plays ask the audience to surrender disbelief. Agreeing to play along and be entertained is a small version of the agreement Kushemski makes to become Vanda's slave. For the sake of the experience, we remain immersed, without an intermission, for just under two hours. Ives sets up parallels that resonate among the modern-day characters, the subjects of the script and the roles of actor and director they assume, and these vibrations are enchanting. But it's up to the actors to make this wild and unresolved story feel complete. Thomas and Vanda dissect the nature of seduction, but in the end it is the viewer who is seduced.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Whiplash"

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