News Column

Unicorn Theatre's 'Venus in Fur' takes a kinky look at gender roles

September 9, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 09--When all is said and done, "Venus in Fur" is an elaborate joke. Clearly designed to entertain audiences with a taste for kink, it probably pleases no one so much as its creator, David Ives.

It's best to approach plays about the theater with caution, but in this compact, two-character piece Ives delivers a clever commentary on certain aspects of theatrical art while cloaking it in the equivalent of a "Twilight Zone" episode.

Set in an audition studio, this extended one-act depicts the efforts of a director/playwright named Thomas to find the right actress to play the dominant female protagonist in his adaptation of "Venus in Furs," an 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch -- from whose name the word "masochism" is derived.

After a long rainy day of auditioning inadequate performers, Thomas is on the phone, complaining bitterly about the untalented people he has seen that day: They're unskilled, they're inarticulate, they dress like hookers, they bring huge sacks of costumes.

Suddenly a young actress running late bursts into the room. Her name is Vanda, and she seems to embody every complaint we've just heard Thomas articulate.

Vanda is brash, loud, aggressive and seemingly unsophisticated. Beneath her raincoat she's wearing an S&M outfit with a dog collar. Nonetheless, she cajoles Thomas into letting her read, and we quickly see that there is more than one version of Vanda.

As they work through a scene with Thomas reading the part of Severin von Kusiemski, a character who enjoys being disciplined with a birch rod, and Vanda reading Wanda, the ultimate disciplinarian, the young actress exhibits a startling clarity of diction and understanding of the material. As they continue, she begins reciting pages of dialogue without even consulting the script.

Thomas wants to know who she really is. So does the audience. And she has various amusing and ultimately false explanations for who and what she is until the truth is ultimately revealed.

Ives has written a cleverly structured piece and has created a showcase for any actress playing Vanda. Thomas is a complex character, but until the final minutes of the play he's essentially a straight man to Vanda's loose-cannon antics.

The Unicorn production, directed by Cynthia Levin, matches two of our best local actors, Vanessa Severo and Rusty Sneary. These performers have worked together for years and that pays off with two smoothly integrated performances.

Severo has rarely played a role so suited to her comedic abilities, and she is simply spectacular. Nothing she does seems rehearsed. The role requires radical gear shifts, sometimes in the bat of an eye, but every reaction, every gesture seems utterly spontaneous. The role also requires a certain finesse with dramatic material, which Severo handles impressively.

Sneary's role is less flashy but he skillfully negotiates a remarkable character transformation. We watch him morph from a bullying director who disdains women to a guy who, rather disturbingly, is forced to get in touch with his feminine side.

Costume designer Georgianna Buchanan has a lot of fun with Vanda's clothes -- you never know what she's going to pull out of her bag next -- while lighting designer Alex Perry and sounder designer Michael Heuer make important contributions. Jason Coale's set is a model of spare simplicity.

Ives has given us a play that celebrates and satirizes the theater simultaneously. Nothing could sound more pretentious than Thomas' adaptation of a 19th-century erotic novel, and much of Vanda's blunt, comic "analysis" of his work actually speaks for the audience. But, as the quality of the performances by Severo and Sneary demonstrate, good actors can find truth and beauty in any material.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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