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Venus in Fur
Aux Dog Theatre

Also see Dean's review of La Cage aux Folles


Brennan Foster and Sheridan Johnson
Venus in Fur is David Ives' amazingly inventive and complex take on the 1870 novella "Venus in Furs" by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. (Why "fur" is singular in one title and plural in the other is just one of the things that puzzles me about this play.) The play is very funny but at the same time disturbing. Disturbing, not because of the masochism depicted (Sacher-Masoch is, after all, the origin of the word), but because I can't quite figure it all out. To use words from the script, the play is "ambiguous." But I'm not at all "ambivalent" about this production: it's a very fine one all around.

Ives' clever conceit here is not simply to adapt the novel, which might have become turgid or even tame in our "Shades of Grey" world, but to include the process of creating the play. Thomas, a modern-day playwright, considers "Venus in Furs" a seminal work of 19th century literature, and he has written an adaptation for the stage. Since he is also the director, he has been auditioning actresses for the role of Wanda (pronounced Vanda in German), the main female character in the book. After a long day of unsuccessful auditions, Thomas is just about to go home to his fiancée Stacy when suddenly in blows another auditioner, an actress named, improbably, Vanda (born Wanda, but she changed it a little).

Who is this Vanda? The only thing we find out for sure is that she is definitely not the ditz she appears to be when we first meet her. How has she gotten a copy of Thomas's entire play when she should have been able to look at only a few audition scenes? How does she know so much about Stacy? Why has she brought with her all the costumes needed for the rest of the play?

Is she a radical feminist who has set up an elaborate ruse to humiliate Thomas, whom she considers a sexist jerk? Is she the goddess Aphrodite come to life to satisfy Thomas's atypical, previously suppressed, sexual desires? Or maybe a talented dominatrix hired by Stacy to find out what Thomas is really like? Is she an incarnation of Judith from the Old Testament Apocrypha, who seduced her enemy Holofernes and then decapitated him? (The epigraph of Sacher-Masoch's book is a quote from the Book of Judith, which is a hint. But don't worry: No beheadings in this play.) Or is the whole play, after the first three minutes, just an elaborate dream that Thomas is having?

Whatever Venus in Fur is supposed to mean, if anything, it is a marvel of counterpoint. As the audition becomes more and more prolonged, the two actors move masterfully between their present-day characters, Thomas and Vanda, and the characters they are acting out from Sacher-Masoch's book and Thomas's play, Severin and Wanda. Eventually, and brilliantly, it becomes hard to tell when exactly we left our world and moved into Sacher-Masoch's.

Brennan Foster (Thomas/Severin) and Sheridan Johnson (Vanda/Wanda) slip effortlessly between modern American and unplaceable Continental accents, between their "real" and their "fictional" characters (but of course they are all fictional). The long one-act requires tour-de-force acting from both parties, and they both absolutely deliver it. I'm not sure that there are any roles in contemporary theater that are more demanding and intense than these two.

I'm glad to see Brennan finally get the part he deserves. He has done very good work before, but I have only seen him in secondary roles until now. This, though, is a star-making performance. Sheridan is quite new to Albuquerque theater, but she certainly acts experienced. I love her voice, one of those hard to define but instantly recognizable voices, not exactly smoky, but with little catches in it that you might call "throaty." It's perfect for both Vanda and Wanda. I hope we see her on stage a lot more often in Albuquerque, but I wonder if either she or Brennan will ever get a better part than this one.

The third collaborator, of course, is the director, Kristine Holtvedt, making her debut in Albuquerque. She and Brennan and Sheridan must have worked together to get this play to flow as seamlessly as it does. There's not a single hiccup, not one stage movement without motivation, not one single what-was-she-thinking directorial choice.

If you're wondering if 21st century American theater has produced anything worth seeing yet, you really ought to see Venus in Fur at the Aux Dog. Then maybe you can help me figure it out.

Venus in Fur, a play by David Ives, is being presented at the Aux Dog Theatre in Albuquerque through March 31, 2013. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00. Info at www.auxdog.com or 505-254-7716.


Photo: Adam Rougemont

--Dean Yannias



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