Theater Review: 'Venus in Fur,' Vermont Stage | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'Venus in Fur,' Vermont Stage


Published May 3, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Deanna McGovern and Jordan Gullikson - COURTESY OF LINDSAY RAYMONDJACK
  • Courtesy Of Lindsay Raymondjack
  • Deanna McGovern and Jordan Gullikson

For his 2010 play Venus in Fur, David Ives wraps a central theme of psychosexual power dynamics in a crazy quilt of theatrical genres to produce a head-spinning comedy. If Ives is almost recklessly playful, the two actors in the Vermont Stage production bring such vitality to their roles that the play pulses with tension from start to intermission-free finish. Part joyride, part rumination, the show explores the balance of opposing forces.

Pleasure and pain make up one such pair, but so do performance and reality. Director Cristina Alicea remounts her 2014 production with the original cast of Jordan Gullikson and Deanna McGovern. This version offers a new trove of insights. The seduction theme remains: Look what I'm willing to do for you. But these performances add a new implication: If I'm willing to do this, who am I?

Ives puts quite a lot of ingredients in his blender, from light erotica to a hint of farce to stone-cold mythology. But ultimately there's no explanation for the play's events, which occur on a rainy night in a present-day New York City theater director's studio. We don't need one, because when the plot sputters, comedy fills the gaps.

Thomas is getting ready to go home after a disappointing day of auditions for the play he's directing. It's his own adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella Venus in Furs. Thomas is on the phone telling his girlfriend he can't find a female actor with the intelligence, beauty and style to play the main character, Vanda, a 19th-century Austrian noblewoman. He's almost out the door when a woman rushes in, late, harried and soaked from the rainstorm outside. She's there to audition.

Her arpeggio of excuses does not hint at future reliability, or at any grasp of 19th-century refinement. But the flash of lighting at her entrance may signal supernatural forces at work. As she complains about the creepy guy who rubbed against her on the subway, spouts off about the unfairness of casting, entreats Thomas to give her a chance and finally just won't budge, it's clear she'll do anything to read the part. That showcase of persuasion is actually a preview of just what the character will need to complete her sexual relationship with the play's other character. Oh, yes. The actor's name is Vanda.

Thomas finally agrees to let her audition, even though it means he'll have to read the other role, since everyone else has left. And then the flustered Vanda gives her long hair a light shake, arches her throat and reads her first line in a perfect continental accent with the composure of an aristocrat. The transformation is dizzying, and one of many to come.

The hall of mirrors shimmers to the end. We're watching actors playing actors playing characters playing a game of sexual domination and submission. And they transform repeatedly as they embellish the personae they develop. The symmetry of sadomasochism is the play's primary geometry, but Ives riffs on the opposition in a host of power relationships. The funniest of these subversions is his twist on the actor-director relationship, and when Vanda starts telling Thomas where to stand, the revolution has finally come.

The play compresses an entire relationship into an audition, complete with a bold bit of improv and some role switches. Ives conjures a sense of freedom, plus a hint of surrealism, to make the story a springboard for surprise.

Alicea elicits strong performances to investigate how need registers as both the power to have a desire fulfilled and the weakness of requiring another to fulfill it. She stages the play with the audience seated on each side of a long alley, emphasizing the viewer as voyeur. Her blocking is confident and elegant, with the slow, measured movement of 19th-century languor.

McGovern's performance is rich, daring and startling. She invokes theater's profound magic power, becoming someone else before our eyes. Every switch in mood or character is so swift and sure that once she has changed, the person she was seems like a hallucination. Vanda requires a performer to go beyond the core acting craft of expressing a desire, because Vanda wants everything. McGovern makes her appear capable of getting it.

As Thomas, the submissive character, Gullikson undergoes inherently milder transformations. The wish to be dominated never plays as soul-searing abjection; Gullikson falls to his knees but no lower. Still, he conveys the oscillation of power, training a hypnotized gaze on Vanda and peeling away Thomas' defenses so the director can comprehend his own play. To lose one's will is to understand it, at last.

The creative design features lighting from Jamien L. Forrest that underlines both the script's supernatural highs and its subtler unpredictability. Scenic designer Jeff Modereger uses a wall of industrial windows to showcase the storm, which sound designer Thom Beaulieu orchestrates. The costumes by Suzanne E. Kneller are oddly lacking in magical aura, leaving every spark of transformation to the actors.

If Ives is taking on the objectification of women, the play spends a lot of time with one posing suggestively in a leather corset. Whether Vanda is breaking from the script or immersing herself in its fantasies, her character is the product of a male playwright teasing us all — and maintaining the power of the last word.

Alicea pulls the bowstring taut, then tauter, but Ives never really supplies an arrow. Instead, McGovern and Gullikson dazzle by twisting the power dynamics between actor and director, male and female, master and servant, even femme fatale and earnest fiancé. Viewers encounter conflicting clues about the mysterious Vanda, but her identity — and even her real desires — eludes us. The suspense gripping the audience is pure sensation, richer than story. There's no climax, dramatically or sexually, which is perhaps Ives' funniest flourish.

Venus in Fur by David Ives, directed by Cristina Alicea, produced by Vermont Stage. Through May 14: Wednesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 2 p.m., at Black Box Theater, Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center, in Burlington. $31.05-38.50.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Sub Text | Theater review: Venus in Fur, Vermont Stage"

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