Like all David Ives plays, Venus in Fur is built on everyday life becoming fantasy, as the primary devices of drama, language, and character, systematically move from ambiguity, to instability, to total collapse, only to be reconstructed as metaphor. In this instance, one that is perhaps Ives’s best written work, we enter an impromptu casting session with director/adapter Thomas and his would-be star, Vanda (the name of both the main character in Ives’s play and the production in development during it).
The script is filled with Ives’s felicity of expression, from a monologue where Vanda thoroughly tears down Thomas’s fiancé, Stacey (who never appears on stage) to another where Thomas (as the lead character in his own play) describes how a childhood canning changed him forever. It is also full of Ives’s token ability to draw humor from almost anywhere, from Vanda’s professed ignorance (she calls the 19th century Medieval Times) to Thomas’s gender confusion (she asks him if he’d like to put her boots on her, and he cradles them as if thinking to wear them himself).
What sets this play apart from Ives’s many other delightful texts, such as Sure Thing (in which a boy is allowed unlimited chances to flirt with a girl thanks to a bell that restarts the conversation whenever he makes a mistake), is the depth of the exploration. The ambiguities in this play (we are not always sure if Thomas is himself or the nobleman Kushemski, and to what extent Vanda is playing the role in the readings or talking about real-life gender politics and sexuality) allow the play to raise deeper questions about the politics of such devices as theatrical representation, of the staging of gender oppression, and indeed, of art itself. Director Jim Gallagher has richly furnished the audience with just this deep exploration in a production that is unexpectedly sweeter and more romantic than the themes might suggest.
Certainly, Natalie Nankervis’ fiery and commanding performance elevates her comments on the sexism of certain elements of the play, as well her comments on gender oppression and enslavement as the character in the play. But the strength of her interpersonal connection to her would-be director and/or co-star makes this more of a performance about two people learning about each other and being changed in their discoveries, than a play about relationships in a larger sense.
From the first line, we see Jeff Mocho showing us Thomas’s failings, he is conceited and deeply disappointed in the talents of others. We see him hurt to the point of childish tears when Vanda questions the quality of the novel and we see him thoroughly shaken when Nankervis transforms from Vanda, the stressed-out actress who complains about an unpleasant ride on the subway or responds to references to the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a skillful switch from total but completely false excitement – to a plea for him to remind her what that is, to Vanda, the powerful love-interest who makes the man who adores her into a submissive slave to break his desire for a goddess.
It’s as close to perfect casting of any play as one can get, each actor masterfully taking ownership of every dynamic moment, from Nankervis challenging Thomas with both direct offers of sex and phone calls to what may well be a another boyfriend waiting for her, to Mocho’s explosions of rage and jealousy.
There is quite a team of designers at work: Set Designer Ricardo Seijo and Lighting Designers Eric Lund and Alex Brady, each with his own named team of assistants, Costume Designer Kaelynn Miller, and JoAnn and Mike Gidos providing properties design. This is a play that calls for minimal tech (a director’s table, a bag of costumes, and scripts in one room, along with a constant storm outside) and these simple elements work nicely as subtle but effective surprises, from flashes of lightning outside a hazy blue set of windows, to the shifts from garish fluorescent to moody ellipsoidals that Vanda gives the reading by flipping circuit breakers around, to Vanya’s hyper-sexualized, though not gratuitously revealing, black lingerie.
The most noticeable effect is the building storm, which goes from the patter of rain and distant flashes, to the entire lighting system shaking under the power of Vanda’s will, mirroring the increasing control she assumes over the process, the product, and the author himself.
The subtle design elements of The Colonial Players extraordinary production of Venus in Fur and the dynamics of two absolutely remarkable performances come together flawlessly in the chilling climax of this absolutely winning production. It’s an experience you do not want to miss!
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.