BWW Reviews: The Alley Theatre's VENUS IN FUR is Riveting, Erotic Comedy
Inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's semi-autobiographical 1870 novella Venus im Pelz (Venus in Furs), which classically but the Masochism in Sadism & Masochism, David Ives' script updates the story to a modern setting. In his play, playwright and director Thomas is auditioning women for the role of Wanda von Dunajew in his theatrical adaptation of the novella. Lamenting how stupid, needy, unrefined, desperate, and weakly compliant the 35 actresses he saw are, Thomas is ready to call it quits for the day. Thunder crashes and the frantic Vanda bursts into the audition room. She pleads for a chance to read for him, despite being late. Thomas gives in to the woman, seemingly an embodiment of every trait he just railed against, and Vanda gives the audition of a lifetime.
David Ives perfectly blends the classical with the contemporary in his play. He strictly adheres to the classical unities, crafting a play that is devoid of subplots, takes place entirely in one location, and covers a span of time shorter than 24 hours. The menacing thunder and the threat of a powerful tempest raging outside conjures memories of Euripides' MEDEA, where each crash of thunder carries a symbolically tectonic weight. Yet, these tropes are married to two characters that inhabit our modern world. Thomas is an erudite writer with a command of language. Vanda is young actress, spewing expletives and abusing the word like as if she was Alicia Silverstone's Cher in Clueless. Here, David Ives begins his calculated and impressive power play. Masterfully mixing scenes from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel with conversations about sexism, examining expectations concerning feminine gender identity and the female gender role, and beautifully pitting the two actors against each other in a struggle that can only be described as epic.
Making his Alley Theatre Directorial Debut, Brandon Weinbrenner has coached his cast of two to deliver a hot and heavy theatrical tour de force. Expertly moving between pulse quickening tension and hysterical comedy, his direction commands the attention of the audience from beginning to end. Shrouded in layers of mystery, the play quickly divulges that there is more to Vanda than her first impressions give us. By keeping the cast grounded in the play's notions of reality, Brandon Weinbrenner keeps audiences riveted as Vanda strips back her layers with deft precision to fully expose herself.
Playing Vanda, Nicole Rodenburg proves herself as a force to be reckoned with. This is the actresses Alley debut, and hopefully we'll be seeing more of her in the future. Her Vanda beguiles the audience with the same effortless ease as she charms Thomas. In no time, we are rooting for her to be heard by Thomas. As she reads for him, we get swept away in the intrigue surrounding her character. She doesn't possess the sides (theatre lingo for scenes) for the audition. She surreptitiously has the entire script, claiming her agent gave it to her. Upon checking the appointments list, her name is inexplicably missing from the schedule. Also, she oddly seems to have the entirety of the script memorized. Purposefully reeling us in, Nicole Rodenburg coyly brings out these puzzling attributes of Vanda. She entices and entertains us. We get completely lost in her impeccable characterization and find ourselves in awe of the journey she takes us on. Her performance is nothing short of a triumph and will be one that Houston audiences talk about for months, maybe even years, to come.
Michael Bakkensen stands his ground in the wake of Nicole Rodenburg's enthralling performance, but he also understands that this is not his show and gives her free reign to be the center of attention. His Thomas, like the audience, is simply along for the ride. Drawn to Vanda's name, charisma, and possibly her embodiment of every attribute he despises in actresses, he allows her to audition for his play. Without trepidation, he quickly finds himself seduced and entirely consumed by her. He struggles to reassert his power and dominance, providing a counter voice to her manipulations of the character and the situation. Finally having enough, he explodes in one of the play's most breathtaking and startling moments, signaling the beginning of the drama's falling action.
David Ives' VENUS IN FUR is an explosive and thought provoking comedy that uses eroticism to examine gender roles in modern society. The heat and sexuality emanating from the stage are sure to drive sell tickets, but David Ives develops rich themes in his prose. Stated with the utmost simplicity, you have got to see VENUS IN FUR to believe it. There is so much more I wish I could talk about in this review, but I just can't without ruining the experience.
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
VENUS IN FUR, produced by the Alley Theatre, plays the intimate Neuhaus Stage at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, Houston, 77002 now through November 10, 2013. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.alleytheatre.org or call (713) 220 - 5700.
Photos by Jann Whaley. Courtesy of the Alley Theatre.