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Review: VENUS IN FURS at Atwater Village Theater

BDSM and casting sessions make for good bedfellows in Ives's play.

Review: VENUS IN FURS at Atwater Village Theater

The lady is four-alarm hot; the man, her plaything. The script is literate and cruelly funny, a simultaneous homage to its salacious source and to the craft and vagaries of live theater. And within a weensy little performance space in the Atwater Village complex, the flickering lights and melodramatic thunderclaps set the mood for a grim little sexual tete-a-tete. Got your stole? Very good. So who out there is game for some kick-ass kink?

This team certainly is. Director Evan Isaac Lipkin, performers Sam Bianchini and Roland Ruiz, with an assist from intimacy director Carly Weckstein and lighting designer Matt Richter, are the folks behind a crafty and sometimes squirmy rendering of David Ives's VENUS IN FUR at the Atwater Village Theatre. Ives' darkly comic tale of fantasy gone Faustian won't win any points for subtlety and Lipkin's company members delight in every ounce of the excess. If intimate theater got any more intimate, someone might get arrested for indecency.

Indecent, or certainly 19th century raciness, is the hallmark of the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novella which gives Ives tale its title and point of departure. In the present day, a stuffed shirt of a scribe, Thomas (played by Ruiz), has adapted the Sacher-Masoch book into a play which he will also direct, but he has hit a wall to cast Vanda, the female lead. After seeing dozens of wrong-headed would-be starlets with all the wrong impulses, Thomas concludes that there are no "sexy-slash- articulate young women with some classical training and a particle of brain in their skulls." The person he's looking for, Thomas regretfully concludes, doesn't exist.

Then in walks an actress who, although she actually has the character's name, is the absolute wrong person for the role. Vanda Jordan (Bianchini) disheveled, relentlessly modern, doesn't have an appointment, says stupid things and swears like a stevedore. Thomas tries to usher her out, but the lady is persistent...and prepared...and she really seems to have some insight into this character. She flatters carefully and - wearing leather, lace and a dog collar ("I brought some costume stuff") proves difficult to resist.

Make that impossible. The ensuing 90 minutes finds Thomas and Vanda acting out Thomas's opus, slipping in and out of the characters as the lines between fiction and reality become increasingly fuzzy. Bianchini's transitions between the two Vandas - one icy and aristocratic; the other a gung-ho actress going to extreme lengths for a part - are especially arresting.

When not acting it out, they're shuttlecocking the play's ideologies and positions which revolve around empowerment and subjugation. Vanda can traffic in both areas; Thomas, well, maybe not. VENUS IN FUR can get a little talky, but director Lipkin has it paced beautifully with some deft technical bits and a pair of performers who are in continuous state of steamy sync. Bianchini especially. The actress eschews beat your brains out seductiveness for a deft blend of wit and self-abasement. In this actor's hands, you're never quite certain if Vanda is chessmaster or pawn. Until you are. Ruiz has the easier role, but his journey into the delights of degradation is convincing.

Since the dawn of the #Meetoo movement, we've been hearing a lot about the work of intimacy coordinators. The stuff going down during VENUS IN FURS may not be as explicit as some recent productions (See SLAVE PLAY), but kudos all the same to the production's intimacy director and kink/BDSM consultant Carly Weckstein for her work making what can't be an easy process feel organic.

Although L.A. stagings have been infrequent, VENUS IN FUR is not a new play. The work had its world premiere at Classic Stage Company in 2010 followed by a Broadway run in 2012, both of which featured a Tony Award-winning performance by Nina Arianda. Lipkin's production is solid rendering of a terrific play by David Ives. If you know the play, keep its secrets to yourself or risk facing the wrath of the gods. You have been warned.

VENUS IN FUR plays through May 21 at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. Los Angeles.venusinfurla.com.

Photo of Sam Bianchini and Roland Ruiz by Jenn Spain Photography



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From This Author - Evan Henerson

Evan Henerson is a longtime arts and features writer who lives in Southern California. He is the former theater critic for the Los Angeles Daily News and has written for such publications as American Theatre,... (read more about this author)

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The lady is four-alarm hot; the man, her plaything. The script is literate and cruelly funny, a simultaneous homage to its salacious source and to the craft and vagaries of live theater. Got your stole? Very good. So who out there is game for some kick-ass kink?