The final mainstage offering from Santa Cruz Shakespeare concludes the season with a bang—and a crash and a boom. Outstanding thunder and lightning effects punctuate the action in Venus in Fur, an often scorchingly funny contemporary drama written by David Ives. It’s a rousing closer to a season that has trained its sights on the politics of desire, gender, and power in many diverse, unruly forms.
Playwright Ives is familiar to SCS audiences as the author of The Liar, adapted from a 17th Century French farce. The SCS production of The Liar was one of the most uproarious in the company’s history. In addition to his own original plays, Ives’ specialty is adapting the work of comic authors of previous centuries, like Moliere and Mark Twain.
But with Venus in Fur, Ives’ source material is an 1870 novella by Austrian literary figure Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the man who put the “M” in S&M). And instead of simply adapting Masoch’s story for the stage, Ives whips up (sorry), a clever bracketing device about a frazzled theatrical director and a ditzy actress late for an audition reading through a modern play based on the Masoch story—and confronting all the sex/control issues it raises. It’s a seductive chamber piece for two actors and four voices as the actress and director go in and out of character, the lines between reality and fantasy blur, and simmering, centuries-old tensions between the sexes bubble to the surface.
Directed with sharp-witted aplomb by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, the story begins as that ferocious storm is raging outside at the end of a long day of fruitless auditions for Thomas (Brian Ibsen). He’s planning to direct a production of his own new play, based on the Masoch story, but all depends on finding the right actress to play the female lead—an elegant countess-turned-dominatrix. As Thomas complains to his fiancée on his cell, all he’s seen are flighty “idiot actresses” who are unable to play “sexy, classy women.”
Enter Vanda (Maria Gabriela Rosado Gonzalez)—rain-soaked, and three hours late for her audition—who threatens to live up to every one of Thomas’ prejudices. She’s exuberantly profane, strewing F-bombs like rose petals in her wake, pushy, and given to raucous belly-laughs. And when he tries to send her packing, she cries. Too weary to resist, he agrees to read a scene with her.
But something transformative happens when Vanda steps into the role of the countess. Her ditziness disappears, and, along with her “continental” accent, she acquires a mysteriously seductive authority. And Thomas (also reading from the script) appears to respond with the same awe as his protagonist in the play, finally begging for her “delicious cruelty,” which he/they confuse with love.
And this is just the beginning, as the dynamic bounces back and forth between them: mistaking love for power, kinks for passion, and wondering who is auditioning whom (and for what). In the late innings leading up to the corker of a finale, canny Vanda gets Thomas to switch parts, reading each other’s lines, adding extra layers to Ives’ study on the nature of “male” vs. “female.”
The play asks a lot of its two actors, but, they are up to the task. Ibsen (so terrific as Berowne in this season’s Love’s Labour’s Lost) anchors the story as Thomas’ sober irritability morphs into something much more revealing. And Gonzalez is riotously entertaining as Vanda, especially in her quicksilver changes from patrician countess to gauche and giddy modern Millennial.
The onstage rack crammed with B. Modern’s vivid period-inspired pieces (frock coats, fluffy skirts) is a great touch to help the characters act out their fantasies. Lighting Designer Kent Dorsey and Sound Designer Rudy Ortega team up to produce precisely-applied storm effects that light up the grove in eerie splendor. It’s a charged evening of theater in every respect.
The Santa Cruz Shakespeare production of ‘Venus In Fur’ plays in repertory through Sept. 2 at The Grove in Delaveaga Park. Call 460-6399 or visit santacruzshakespeare.org.