Monday, February 17, 2014

"Venus in Fur" Tries for Real Human Sexuality but ends up on Mount Olympus instead

Gillian Williams and Michael Tisdale in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Venus in Fur (Chris Bennion)

Venus in Fur
Through March 9

So, an actress walks into an audition late. Very late. And the director/adapter is tired and frustrated, having auditioned dozens, he lets us know, DOZENS of young women who can’t even begin to speak the language of his play. His masterpiece is an adaptation of an 1870 novel, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. But the actress dispenses with the novel as “S&M porn,” offhandedly, challenging and taunting the director to allow her to audition, since she’s already there.

Thus begins the latest production at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Venus in Fur, by David Ives. In a co-production with Arizona Theatre Company, two actors from there, Michael Tisdale and Gillian Williams, and director Shana Cooper mount this electrifying, titillating, challenging, funny, whiplashing, role-reversing, sexuality-exploring one-act.

The somewhat lengthy (100 plus) minute one-act is a fast-paced exploration of both the subject of the novel, masochistic relationships (named after author Sacher-Masoch), and who’s on top. Is it the slave or the master? Is a woman by definition the weaker sex, or does the man give over to serve the woman?

What makes this play particularly fun is the lightning fast switches from modern vernacular and slang back to 18th Century refined speech. Williams is fantastically good at the minute moments of back-and-forth, with a faint New Yorkese, and brash American style, giving way in parts of seconds back to a pseudo-British refinement.

Tisdale starts out promisingly, but does not plant himself firmly enough in the asshole category to hang on to his ascendance in the face of Williams’ immediate disarmament. He does a good job, but when he has to change to a certain submission, the change is undercut by too much passivity at the beginning.

David Ives’ play is very well written and very fun, particularly at the beginning, though he doesn’t end up challenging the male/female relationship nearly as much as he promises. And the ending seems like he decided he had written a long-enough play and had to finish it somehow.

The very first sentences Ives has the man say are completely unbelievable to me: that he couldn’t find any good female actors. Ives may not know that there are dozens of fantastic female actors for every male, because so many women develop theatrical skills for so few female parts! So, it undercuts his understanding of women, and as the play goes along, so do his postulates for feminine power.

Director Shana Cooper plainly revels in the strength of the female character, but unfortunately doesn’t help her create levels of intimacy or a real sexual chemistry with her male counterpoint, and therefore the production misses any highs or lows. The first half of the play feels fun and involving, but it flags and then stays about the same for the last half.

Ives’ decision to transform the female into an archetype (at the end) seems in a perverse way to suggest he is not at all comfortable with real human female sexuality.  In a battle of sexual power, only a Goddess can win over a lowly man, not a real woman. And in that dilemma, Ives fails to illuminate anything useful or new about our sexual lives.

The play is smart enough, then, to end up disappointing. Both a testament to and a failure of a set up that has promise, but does not cut through the musty ideas of female sexuality that continue to hamper us in the rest of life.