Venus in Fur
Through Nov. 18, TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., (860) 527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org
Don't be fooled by the dingy realism of the anonymous rehearsal room where Venus in Fur takes place: this play calls on mythic precursors and is meant to demonstrate that the gods can meet us where we live, in the immediate here and now. Last year's Broadway production was widely acclaimed, and its female star turned heads far and wide on her way to winning the Tony for Best Actress. So TheaterWorks' production is a hot ticket, in more ways than one.
When the show opens, playwright Thomas (David Christopher Wells) is on the phone with his fiancée, delivering a misogynistic rant about the long line of stupid actresses he's been auditioning all day for his new play. That (fictional) play is based on the (real) 1870 erotic novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name is preserved (along with the Marquis de Sade's) in the term "sado-masochism." Fair warning: TheaterWorks is not admitting anyone under 18 to this show, which avoids nudity but includes strong sexual situations of a kinky sort.
In walks Vanda (Liv Rooth) to audition for the part, way late for the appointment she claims to have, and hauling a bag that will, over the course of the intermissionless 90 minutes to come, yield multiple costumes and props for their mutual…use. She appears to be the epitome of the ditzy blonde he's been complaining about, until they finally settle down to business and she speaks the first line of the show he's written.
The transformation actress Liv Rooth executes at that moment is a fine example of one reason we theater geeks love the art form — and it is only the first of multiple shape-shifts she'll provide. Rooth understudied the role on Broadway and so has had plenty of time to develop the rich layers of disguise and deception it offers. She's fun to watch, even if I have some reservations about the play itself.
Playwright David Ives is best known for imaginative short plays overflowing with clever wordplay that dissect romantic connections of various types. These worthy gems are staples in college and community theater programs, collected under the titles All in the Timing and Time Flies. Here, the game is more serious. Ives is offering an extended argument about the power dynamics between men and women within the theater world. Men write, cast, and direct; women play dumb, flatter, and seduce in order to get work. Too often, it's a sleazy, lopsided bargain that demeans both while ostensibly serving their mutual needs. Of course this is too simple, though sometimes apt; of course it deserves to be exposed; and yet there's something about this play that makes it all too cat-and-mouse, manipulative and formulaic — culminating in the depiction of the man as victim of a castrating female, yet again. Really?
But that's a problem with the play, not the performances here, which are sharply rendered, committed, and fast-paced. Wells as Thomas is willing, by turns, to be unlikeable and gullible and submissive, though I am never fully convinced that his character is any more fully human and real than hers; he's a foil. Still, it's a treat to watch these two performers bait each other, and they succeed in making what could be merely tawdry at times actually quite funny. Rob Ruggiero's direction is deft, as always. The sound and lighting design team escalates what seems tediously ordinary at first up to a suitable climax. We're lucky to have a local theater company that can serve up the latest hot thing from NY so fast and so well.