The set up:
The spectacle of sex holds great allure for the stage. Sexual attraction, sexual deviance, sexual manipulation, sexual abandon, sexual politics, sexual power … let’s face it, we're into all of it whether we admit it in polite company or not.
But just because sex sells, doesn't mean it impresses us theatrically. For sex of any stripe to work onstage, where there is no benefit of the novel reader's steamy imagination or the film camera's seductive close up, there needs to be 3 things. A playwright with a deft touch for the essential in the eros, a director unafraid to plug into desire and a cast whose chemistry registers to even the most ill-sighted audience member.
In 2011, David Ives Broadway hit, Venus in Fur, seemed to have all these elements. Ives's 95-minute two-hander about a young actress auditioning for a role in a director’s new production of a play based on an S&M novella, may not have been the most inspired piece of playwriting, but it deliciously twisted with unexpected sexual prowess and turned with suspenseful erotic intrigue. Director Walter Bobbie stylishly ratcheted up the sexy and the strange while leaving ample room for odd titillation and even humor. But no one can argue that it was Nina Arianda’s sensationally sizzling performance as leading lady Vanda that made this show. The nominations and awards poured in for Arianda and when it was all said and done, the Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role was hers.
Since then, the play has been turned in to a French film by Roman Polanski and the stage version became the most produced show in the United Statesin the 2013/14 season. In other news, Venus in Fur apparently also holds the record for being the Prague Shakespeare Companies (PSC) most popular show to date. Something we in Houston should care about, seeing as PSC has brought its Bard-topping production to Houston courtesy of partnership with Main Street Theater.
We already know that Ives script works well enough. The challenge for the company from the City of a Hundred Spires then is to inject the requisite director/cast elements to make sure this sizzling play keeps on cooking.
Did I say three things are needed to make this play successful? I did? Let me add another then. Lighting. I will say unequivocally that lighting is essential if Venus in Fur is going to work. Forgive the earlier omission, but you see the critical importance of lighting in this show was only recently made clear by how utterly atrocious it was in this production.
We meet director Thomas (Guy Roberts) on the clichéd dark and stormy night as he’s fuming in frustration at having just auditioned no less than 35 incompetent actresses for his play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 19 century erotic novella, Venus in Furs. Like a whirlwind of kook, in bursts Vanda (Jessica Boone), hours late for the audition and with all the eloquence and grace of a Kardashian who’s had a few too many. Whether it’s the dominatrix outfit she’s wearing thinking it’s role appropriate or the period costumes she’s brought with her, Thomas agrees to delay going home to his fiancée in order to let her read for the part with him as the male lead.
In other words, this is a sexually charged play within a play that takes place on a stormy night in an intimate audition room. So why then does Lighting Designer Mitchell Cronin keep what feels like 95 percent of the house lights up for most of the performance, obliterating any sense of sexual tension or moody ambiance? Even with moments of good energy on stage (more on that later) it was almost impossible not to allow the eye to wander to the very visible audience seated on three sides of the minimalist stage as if they were extras in the show just waiting for their cue.
And trust me; this isn’t a show that needs any extras. Vanda is personality enough to fill the stage. Or actually her two personalities are. There’s the modern Valley girl dimwit who expertly cracks gum and repeatedly uses the word ambivalent instead of ambiguous (Whatever – as she says). Then there’s the Vanda who surprises Thomas and us with her out of the blue ability to perfectly play the upper class, lady-like, educated sadist to Thomas’ portrayal of the masochistic male lead.
As Thomas begs her to keep reading with him, much of the play’s attempt at humor derives from Vanda’s switching back and forth between the two personas. Just as our ears get used to her mellifluous and erudite delivery, she breaks character and zings us with plain old OMG Vanda-speak that increasingly is used to take the piss out of Thomas. Here Boone gives it her all, but under Guy Robert’s direction (yes totally Meta, a director directing himself as a character that is a director directing a play) the rushed pacing sweeps much of the humor under the carpet. With no time to savor the incongruence of the two Vandas, we simply accept it and pay little attention to the gulf.
Ives’ script also makes sure we pay little attention to Thomas. He’s really nothing more than a conduit for Vanda to strut about and own the stage. While it’s lovely to see a woman given such command in a play, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Roberts who also tries to give it his all but without much notice. He plays shocked, then amused, then smitten, then spurned with varying degrees of success, but no matter what his output, Ives makes sure our eyes are always on the scantily-clad and scene-stealing Vanda.
That is until Vanda and Thomas begin to bleed into the roles they’re playing and vice versa. What’s play becomes real and what’s real is not what it seems. “Who are you and where did you come from?” Thomas asks Vanda at various points in the play. At first we think we know, but as the sexual power shifts in curious ways and Vanda reveals astute knowledge of Thomas’s motives and personal life, we question who exactly this mysterious actress is and what it is she wants from Thomas.
What we shouldn’t question is the sexual chemistry between the two as they circle closer and closer together in their master and slave relationship. Once again, the bright lights wash away any whiff of the erotic here rendering moments risible that should be impassioned. A pivotal scene where Vanda orders Thomas to dress her in sky high stiletto black boots reads about as sexy as grocery shopping for milk. But harsh lighting it isn’t the only issue. Chemistry is what’s needed and unfortunately is missing. Boone’s Vanda hoots and hollers her way through the charged scenes, including a wonderful turn as a German accented Venus come to earth, but never does she conjure a truly alluring or seductive side. Similarly, Roberts fails to summon the visceral passion to make us believe Thomas is undone by Vanda. Together they go through the motions and leave no one in the need of a cold shower.
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If lighting, direction and chemistry were problematic during the bulk of this play, these three deficits come crashing together in a hot mess for the final scene. Ives gives us a fairly commonplace revenge fantasy outcome, which is a shame as we hoped for something more interesting. But when done well, with powerful lighting, direction that draws out the punchline and the final surge of the show’s sexual tension, it’s an ending that leaves audiences more than satisfied. Without these elements, PSC’s attempt shrugs its way to the finish line.
The Bard may be getting beaten by this production in Prague, but here in Houston it’s safe to say that Shakespeare has nothing to fear from the kink of Vanda, Thomas and Ives.
Venus in Fur continues through January 24 at Main Street Theatre, 2540 Times. For tickets contact 713.524.6706 or online at MainStreetTheater.com. $ $39 - $20.