The Venus effect

The Historic Asolo Theater’s latest is a mind-altering experience.

click to enlarge VANDA VOOM: Playwright Thomas (Scott Kerns) gets more then he bargained for from his lead actress (Sarah Nealis). - Cliff Roles
Cliff Roles
VANDA VOOM: Playwright Thomas (Scott Kerns) gets more then he bargained for from his lead actress (Sarah Nealis).

David Ives’ Venus in Fur is about power, sado-masochism, gender and theater. It’s about The War Between Men and Women, and especially the roles that men continue to expect even politically advanced women to play for them. In the superb production at Sarasota’s Asolo Rep, two fine actors — Sarah Nealis and Scott Kerns — turn our minds and libidos inside out, challenging us to examine the dance of domination and submission, and to discover our own subterranean sexual assumptions. The play’s not a therapeutic exercise, though: it’s an often funny, surprising, suspenseful entertainment. I know that Bay area audiences don’t often cross the Skyway for their theater fix, but this is one case where I’d advise them to get in the car and drive. This mind-altering experience is legal and long-lasting. No one will lack for conversation on the way home.

The play starts with a young playwright/director named Thomas complaining over the phone about the mediocre actresses who so far have auditioned for his new drama, based on Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Fur. Then Vanda, a rather vulgar and loud actress, arrives late but convinces Thomas to grant her a brief tryout. The part that she wants to play is another Vanda (“von Dunayev”), the 19th-century love interest of a certain Severin von Kushemski. Severin’s been looking for a woman to enslave him, and von Dunayev, an alluring Central European beauty, seems just the ticket. As crude actress Vanda conducts her typically silly warm-up exercises, we predict that she’ll fail at the dialogue, the accent, and the aura.

It turns out that we’re wrong (and not for the last time): Vanda is wonderful in the part, so sophisticated and nuanced, it’s hard to believe the transformation. Then more curiosities crop up. Actress Vanda seems to know more about Thomas’s play than she first admitted, and may even have studied the original work on which it’s based. Intrigued and perhaps entranced, Thomas insists that she perform further pages, and the line between illusion and reality begins to disappear. Soon Thomas is calling the actress “Mistress” and nearly bringing her to orgasm as he ties on her boots. Then Vanda is telling Thomas things about his fiancée, a certain Stacy, that she couldn’t possibly know, and providing costumes that she shouldn’t logically own from a large bag. He becomes her and she becomes him, thunder and lightning occur with a kind of mind-boggling appropriateness, and a fateful contract in the playscript may also be binding in “reality.” And it all leads to an ending that’s both fantastical and, you might say, inevitable. Wow.

Nealis as Vanda is splendid. At one moment a clumsy modern urbanite, at another a haunting femme fatale from another century, she’s a mystery you can’t take your eyes off lest you miss something. At first she’s just an actress desperate for a job; by the end of the play she’s something altogether different: a shrewd and passionate woman with an agenda all her own. As Thomas, Kerns is a credible foil, more sexist than he realizes, and more complicit in the desires of the Severin character than he wants to admit. True, his outbursts of anger aren’t always credible, but for the most part he’s a plausibly self-absorbed artist. Tea Alagic’s staging is remarkably potent, and Andrew Boyce’s set, of an industrial loft turned into a rehearsal space, could be the real thing. Emily Rebholz’s costumes — especially Vanda’s undergarments — are at moments terribly important, as is, on a few occasions, Matthew Richards’ lighting.

People will disagree about the power and meaning of the play’s ending. As for me, I’m just too Jewish to take it at face value — you’ll know what I mean when you see the play. Still, this is an extraordinary drama that will give your psyche a real workout. If you really care about contemporary drama, you’ll ignore the inconvenience and take the drive south.

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