Written by David Ives
Directed by Kim Rubinstein and Sam Woodhouse
San Diego Repertory Theatre
Nov. 9 – Dec. 8, 2013
A writer tackles an adaptation of the 1870 erotic novella “Venus in Furs” then hits a wall auditioning 21st century actresses to play the sexy, sophisticated, brainy lead character, Wanda von Dunayev.
Don’t fret if you haven’t read the book, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which inspired the term “masochism.” You’re about to receive quite an education in theprovocative “Venus in Fur,” on stage at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
The story opens literally with a bang: A thunder clap and ominous lightning illuminates a dusty rehearsal hall. Writer-director Thomas (Jeffrey Meek) is ranting on the phone to his fiancée about his abysmal day auditioning actresses who “sound like a six-year-old on helium.” The violent, storm-tossed night delivers drenched and disheveled Vanda (Caroline Kinsolving) who falls through the doorway hours after auditions have concluded. Unrefined, broadcasting f-bomb laden language, and wearing an all-too-obvious leather-and lingerie outfit under her raincoat does little to impress Thomas, who is eager to call it a day.
Vanda’s entreaties convince Thomas to let her read for the part. She extracts from her oversized satchel a coffee-stained copy of the script. Thomas asks how it came in her possession given her name isn’t on the audition sheet. Vanda demurs. It’s just the first of an escalating series of unsettling mysteries that sprint the story along. Next, she retrieves a lacy Victorian-style gown that crumpled in her hands looks demure but once donned reveals a Versace-inspired front slit that takes your eyes all the way up Broadway.
This isn’t nearly as riveting as what happens next.
From her first syllable as Wanda, Kinsolving’s carriage, Continental accent, and delivery transform her utterly and completely into a 19th century force to be reckoned with. It’s an electrifying effect, all the more so because for the remainder of the evening Kinsolving will seamlessly switch between Wanda/Vanda.
Meek takes the part of Severin von Kushemski (also from the original work) and does a similar, if somewhat less compelling, transformation playing Thomas/Kushemski, perhaps because we’ll soon learn the two men share similar misogynist notions about women.
Things begin to percolate and take a darker, edgy turn as Vanda and Thomas assume their roles in his play inviting the audience to ponder power and vulnerability. At one point, they even switch male/female roles and improvise, not certain where this will take them. It’s a mistake on Thomas’s part as the lines begin to blur between fantasy and reality, seduction and power, until dramatically and inextricably the actress assumes total dominance over the director, exactly like the story told in the novel.
Lightning flashes intermittently throughout the story are lighting designer Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s reminder to the audience to breathe.
Hats off to dual directors Kim Rubinstein and Sam Woodhouse for a smart and sizzling production.
Scenic designer Robin Sanford Roberts packs a lot of punch into little more than bare stage: A small office off to the side, a portentous chaise longue, and what appears at first to be a structural support in an industrial space providing a means for Kinsolving to demonstrate her pole-dancing skills.
Costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gitting’s attention to detail – spoke-crumpled umbrella, torn nylon stockings, and raincoat doused with water just before her entrance – tells us volumes about Vanda even before she utters her first word. Thomas benefits from that magic satchel, which produces period jackets when he assumes Kushemski’s persona. And a pair of up-to-there black, leather boots becomes a seductive character itself as subservient Thomas is forced to languidly slide them up Vanda’s legs.