Reviewed by Judy Richter
It starts late one stormy afternoon (sound by Cliff Caruthers) after Thomas (Johnny Moreno) has unsuccessfully auditioned dozens of actresses for the lead in a play, "Venus in Fur," that he's directing. He also has adapted it from "Venus in Furs," an 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The term "masochism" evolved from the author's name.
Thomas is just about to leave and go home to his fiancee when another actress, Vanda (Allison F. Rich), stumbles in on stiletto heels. Flustered from a trying day, she says she had an appointment several hours ago, but she's not on Thomas's list.
Still, she convinces Thomas to give her a chance, saying she's just right for the part because the play's lead character is called Vanda. She comes across as an airhead who seems to know almost nothing about the play or its source.
However, when she takes off her raincoat, she's in all black -- leather miniskirt, bustier, stockings and garters -- because, she says, the character is a prostitute (costumes by Jean Cardinale).Then, as she and Thomas, playing Severin, the lead male, read through the script, it appears she has memorized most of the lines.
And, from the large bag she lugged into the sparsely furnished rehearsal space (set by Richard C. Ortenblad with lighting by Maurice Vercoutere), she pulls a dress suitable for the time period of the play. As if that weren't enough, she also has brought in a frock coat and jacket that both fit Thomas perfectly.
The play within the play concerns the dominant-submissive sexual relationship between Vanda as the dominant one and Severin as the submissive one.
Paralleling Thomas's script, the balance of power between him and actress Vanda shifts from him as the director to her as herself and her character.
American Conservatory Theater successfully staged "Venus in Fur" last year, but this current production is more erotically charged in part because it's in a far more intimate space.
Another reason might be that Moreno and Rich have acted together before and apparently have developed a sense of trust that creates the necessary chemistry between their characters.
Director Kimberly Mohne Hill also deserves credit for careful pacing of this 90-minute, intermissionless play. She allows laugh lines to relieve some of the tension while adding to the audience's questions about Vanda. Just who is she? How does she know so much about Thomas, his fiancee and even their dog? Why is she there?
The playwright provides no concrete answers to those questions, but he gives the audience for this fine production plenty to think about.
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