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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Venus in Fur
Arizona Theatre Company

Also see Gil's reviews of Wait Until Dark, Good People and Les Misérables


Michael Tisdale and Gillian Williams
David Ives' play Venus in Fur was a pretty big hit in New York three years ago. It started its life Off Broadway, moved to Broadway in a limited run for Manhattan Theatre Club and then transferred to a different Broadway theater for a commercial run. The play portrays a combination of a battle of the sexes, masochism, and the goddess Aphrodite and is receiving its Arizona premiere—one of the first productions of the play directed by a woman—at the Arizona Theatre Company with an exceptional cast.

Playwright and director Thomas (Michael Tisdale) has just ended a frustrating day of auditions, trying to find the woman to play "Wanda" in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel "Venus in Furs." A storm brewing outside the rehearsal studio has nothing on the hurricane that is about to take place inside when Vanda (Gillian Williams) shows up. Thomas' first impression is that she is just like every other girl he's auditioned that day—all form and no substance, believing that the play is all about S&M and sex since the word masochism comes from Sacher-Masoch's name. But Vanda soon shows Thomas that there is more than he can imagine beneath her exterior. The two begin a cat and mouse game of seduction and domination where roles are frequently reversed and one never really knows what is real and what is not.

Now, for a play that is all about sex and sexual role playing it is interesting to note that there is no nudity or sex ever shown. Instead, the focus is on the intense relationships of the characters at the center Sacher-Masoch's novel, the ones in Thomas' play adaptation of the novel, as well as Thomas and Vanda themselves, and how those relationships can instill power, but a power that is often up for grabs. Ives does a good job of creating two realistic characters as well as an interesting set-up, with an audition for a play about domination with the two characters trading off who is dominating whom.

Williams as Vanda gets the more juicer role to play, or roles in this case, since she at first comes across as a clueless, though tough and extremely vocal "actress" but also becomes someone else entirely different once she begins to audition as the play within a play's Wanda. Her ability to transition easily between the various "roles" she plays is especially refreshing and fascinating to watch. As the audition process goes forward and the scenes are broken up between the audition and a discussion between Thomas and Vanda about the play, sex, and Thomas' personal life, Williams uses her voice and body language to move seamlessly from one character to the next. She easily gets across a clear distinction between these two characters and is an outright hoot as Vanda the actress but just as impressive as Wanda the character in the play.

Tisdale is equally effective as Thomas as well as the male character in his play, Severin. And, while it is the more "weaker" of the two roles and less forceful, Tisdale's ability to come across as more subservient makes sense. At one point in the play they trade characters, and Tisdale is quite extraordinary when he becomes Wanda. The chemistry between the two actors, at times, is intense.

Direction by Shana Cooper is just about perfect. Nuanced, comedic and light, but also forceful and direct when necessary—and this play has many mood swings. While she may bring a more feministic view to the production, I think her direction actually makes the romantic feelings and moments more realistic, yet she also doesn't shy away from the more intensely sexual moments of domination and submission. I believe having a woman director also drastically helps Tisdale's luminous portrayal of Wanda really come to life, and not just seem like a man mockingly playing a woman. Cooper also adds nice touches through the incorporation of set pieces, including the humorous use of a piano and a piece of pipe that stretches from the floor to ceiling.

Creative elements are impeccable, including Sibyl Wickersheimer's amazingly realistic set design that places the events perfectly in a run-down studio with exposed white brick walls and filthy, large windows. Geoff Corff and T. Greg Squire's evocative lighting plot seamlessly combines with the set to easily transport us from the present, with its harsh fluorescent lighting, to the past of the scenes in the play, and beyond. Bart Fasbender's sound design is effective yet not overpowering, even during the thunderstorm brewing outside, so it doesn't get in the way of the storm of seduction taking place within the studio. Costumes by Harmony Arnold are appropriately realistic for the various periods of the play and the varied kinks of the characters.

While I missed the play on Broadway, I did see one of the first regional productions last year at the George Street Theatre in New Jersey. I wasn't taken that much by that production, most likely due to the small stage that didn't allow the play to breathe. Fortunately, the Arizona Theatre Company production has a large stage that, with two exceptional actors and an assured director, give the play and the characters enough space to pull us in to their intricate, sexual power struggle. And, while overall the play isn't that controversial or even titillating, it does comment on the modern themes about sex, sexuality and sexual roles and how they compare to the period and characters in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel.

While Williams and Tisdale are just about perfect for the parts, with each more than able to handle their own in the often changing roles the two play of dominant and submissive, they can't completely mask the few shortcomings in Ives' play. With several shifts in tone that happen too abruptly and too many unanswered questions it might leave you wondering. Does Vanda have a pre-conceived plan or agenda? Does she already know who Thomas is before she enters the room or is she just a very quick study? Is Thomas' play autobiographical? Is Thomas imagining his entire encounter with Vanda? The answers are left up to the audience to decide, which makes the play intriguing, though slightly unsatisfying. Fortunately, with two great actors, impressive direction and first rate creative elements, including a superb set design, they more than make up for the few misses in the writing.

Venus in Fur at Arizona Theatre Company runs through May 18th, 2014, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling (602) 256–6995.

Director: Shana Cooper
Set Designer: Sibyl Wickersheimer
Costume Designer: Harmony Arnold
Lighting Designer: Geoff Corff
Lighting Designer: T. Greg Squires
Sound Designer/Composer: Robertson Witmer
Dialect Coach: Gin Hammond
Production Stage Manager: Glenn Bruner

Cast:
Thomas: Michael Tisdale
Vanda: Gillian Williams


Photo: Chris Bennion

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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