BWW Reviews: Austin Playhouse's VENUS IN FUR is a Steamy, Naughty Treat
Austin actresses, take note. If you're not getting cast as often as you'd wish, there are two techniques you may want to try. Next time you go to an audition, come with props, specifically a dog collar and a whip. If that's not your style, then just try to emulate the incredible talents of Molly Karrasch. Those are two big takeaways from Venus in Fur, the startlingly and daring new comedy now playing at Austin Playhouse.
The play, written by David Ives, takes its inspiration from the novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Written in 1870, Sacher-Masoch's controversial tale involves a young man, Severin von Kusiemski, who is so infatuated with the pure Wanda von Dunayev that he asks to be her slave and pleads to be treated in the most degrading of ways possible. Wanda reluctantly agrees but eventually enjoys the arrangement.
In Ives's play, director/playwright Thomas Novachek is looking for the perfect actress to play Wanda in his stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's work, but he's unable to find a woman who can breathe life into such a complicated role. Enter the coincidentally named Vanda, a spacey, bubbly, enthusiastic, occasionally dim-witted young woman who desperately wants to audition, despite being over an hour late. She eventually convinces Thomas to allow her to read for the part, and over the course of her audition, Thomas slowly realizes that Vanda may in fact be too comfortable in the role of the dominatrix.
Despite a bizarre ending that begs for a rewrite more than a sadist begs for a whipping, Venus in Fur is quite possibly the best of Ives's work thus far in his career. This is a comedy that is as funny as it is cerebral, and Ives is equally strong at creating brilliant characters, an intriguing power struggle, hilarious one-liners, and moments of physical comedy. The same could be said of director Lara Toner. Every moment is delicately crafted and clearly thought out. Vanda's manic whirlwind of an entrance is magnificently staged to enhance the humor, and other moments, like one in which Thomas helps Vanda into her stiletto boots, are sensual and steamy but subtle.
B. Iden Payne Award winner Molly Karrasch dominates the stage just as easily as her character dominates poor Thomas. Her performance is electric, startling, and constantly unpredictable. We never truly know what to make of Vanda. When we meet her, she comes off a bit like the dumb blonde stereotype of a struggling, fast talking, frantic New York actress. But we quickly realize there's more to her than that. She's a manipulative, mysterious, dangerous force to be reckoned with, and she knows a bit more than she should about the role she's auditioning for. It's incredible to watch Karrasch switch effortlessly between the dignified, European Wanda and the earthy, goofy, straightforward Vanda. If her name ends up on the list of nominees for this season's B. Iden Payne Awards or Austin Critics Table Awards, I would not be surprised in the least.
By Ives's design, Venus in Fur is Vanda's play, but Gray G. Haddock's Thomas is never completely overshadowed by his counterpart. Dominated, yes, but not overshadowed. While Vanda is a ball of energy, Thomas is quiet, stoic, and a tad snarky, allowing for a delectable contrast between the two characters. Watching him try to figure Vanda out in the latter half of the evening is almost as fun as Vanda's antics.
If by chance you meet someone who's seen the Austin Playhouse production of Venus in Fur and they mention that they didn't like it, tell them they've been very, very bad and give them a good spanking. That seems the only appropriate response. Of course, the odds of you ever meeting that person are highly unlikely. With its smartly crafted dialogue, brilliant direction, and two performances that are bound to be (and deserve to be) discussed for the rest of this season, Venus in Fur is a sexy, almost sinful treat to Austin theatergoers.
Note: For mature audiences only.
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes, no intermission.
VENUS IN FUR plays the Austin Playhouse inside the Highland Mall at 6001 Airport Blvd, Austin 78752 now thru January 25th. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm. Tickets are $24-$26. For tickets and information, please visit www.austinplayhouse.com