Kinky sex comes to the Alley Theatre via David Ives's provocatively funny Venus in Fur (2010).
Vanda (the amazing Nicole Rodenburg) arrives with a thunderclap. Almost materializes — the last one in a long line of actresses that harried director/writer Thomas (equally good Michael Bakkensen) is auditioning for the role of aristocratic Vanda in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's classic 1870 tale of female sexual domination and male humiliation. Tired and irritable, he spews his frustration at the paltry female talent he's had to endure. They're so young and stupid, he rages in male chauvinist mode. There are no women out there, when — BOOM — Vanda blows in, dropping her bags, wet script and F-bombs all over the rehearsal studio.
She's everything he's been whining about: ditsy, vapid, artsy-fartsy and a little mad. She's three hours late, something about a guy copping a feel on the subway. In a series of comic encounters, including a priceless battle with her raincoat sleeve, Vanda cajoles and wheedles a reading of the script. Against his wishes, she quickly drops her everyday wear to reveal a Victoria's Secret ensemble of leather skirt, black stockings and bustier. It's an indelible moment of sexual frisson. She flicks off the overhead fluorescent lights. The room glows amber. So does she.
She lowers her voice into a Dietrich purr. In a whip crack, goofy Vanda becomes woman-of-the-world Vanda, the character from his play. She knows all the lines letter-perfect; she drips weary sophistication down to her arched fingertips. Her transformation takes Thomas — and us — by complete surprise. Delightfully so.
Thomas reads the part of Severin, the shiftless rich hedonist who wants to be dominated. Oozing guile like a siren, Vanda subtly directs her director. Comically switching into her modern airhead mode, she prods him to dig deeper. Tentative at first but then ecstatic, he submits to her will, as the female character he's created on the page stands in front of him, more vivid than he could have ever imagined. Like Severin, this is the turn-on he's been waiting for.
David Ives's provocative play is not your father's sex comedy, although it has a lot of Feydeau farce in it. But even at 90 minutes, the dark sex comedy runs out of steam, or steamy situations, for we know where these stiletto boots are walking. Yet multiple, piquant surprises twine through the play, such as the delightfully insightful scene on the divan where Thomas is brought low by Vanda's prescient knowledge of his bland fiancée and their bland life together.
Bakkensen makes a solid male foil to Vanda's exotic female. Blustery and pigheaded, he soon succumbs to the darkness within, not knowing exactly how or why. But, really, who could resist Rodenburg? Her timing, her inflections, whether Austro-Hungarian or whacked-out street profanity, are spot-on; and she looks great wearing those boots. Both of them make submission and humiliation, physical and psychic seduction, look as pretty as an ad from the Erotic Cabaret Boutique.
The physical production seduces as well. Takeshi Kata's evocative set is knowingly detailed; Tricia Barsamian's costumes are a fetishist's dream; Matthew Richards's lighting and Matt Starritt's ominous thunder add their own surprises. Director Brandon Weinbrenner, the Alley's resident assistant director, moves into the big league with this debut, layering the fractured fairy tale with spiky, sensuous rhythms that entice us into the story even when Ives drags his heels.
Who is this vixen in dog collar and garter belts? We leave the poor director/author tied up with one of Vanda's black stockings, calling out her name in supplication, fear and, no doubt, desire. If you like your pain with a lot of pleasure, then Venus in Fur will have you on your knees — thanking the Alley for this bright and snappy comedy of sexual mis-manners.