In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” Leonato describes a “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick, and “the battle of the sexes” has become a familiar way to describe male-female relationships. How literally we interpret its meaning depends on our individual experiences; some people’s romances are more combative than others. It seems that where sex is involved, there’s no predicting the outcome.
This is the jumping-off point for David Ives’ witty and surprising “Venus in Fur,” which just opened at Salt lake Acting Company, fresh from a Tony-nominated Off-Broadway run. The play is one of the most popular choices for regional theaters this season because it combines Ives’ devilishly droll wordplay with the momentum and unexpected twists and turns of a runaway train.
When Vanda (Marza Warsinske) arrives four hours late in the midst of an electrical storm to read for Thomas’ (Patrick Kintz’s) play about two lovers locked in a passionate power struggle, she seems like the other actresses he has been auditioning all day, “a living panoply of outcasts” who are incapable of “pronounc[ing] the word ‘degradation’ without a tutor.” But appearances are deceptive. She has the same name as the woman in the play, she’s not on his audition schedule, she possesses an entire copy of the unpublished script which she knows by heart, and when she begins reading, she instantly becomes the character.
Thomas is equally ambiguous — or ambivalent (Vanda can’t get the distinction straight) — in his own way. He claims to be an intellectual, but conventional, person who is attracted to these characters because their emotions are larger than life. “They’re handcuffed at the heart,” he says. But as he reads the part of Kushemski, he acquires an intensity that becomes almost frenzied. As Vanda’s character Venus says in the play, “You want to think by day, but by night you want to dance naked around a fire.”
As the audition progresses, the distinctions between the characters in Thomas’ play and the people reading them begin to dissolve. When Thomas says the play is “about a woman who recognizes something in herself … and about a man who until he meets her is forced to hide his true self away,” is he talking about the characters or him and Vanda?
“Venus in Fur” becomes a journey through a set of mirrors reflecting the relationship linking director and actress, Kushemski and Vanda, man and woman; an intricate play within a play within the play that we’re watching. Who is auditioning whom, and who will ultimately get the upper hand?
“Venus in Fur” features complex, conflicted characters, and Warsinske and Kintz respond with tour de force performances. Kintz’s calm, controlled and controlling Thomas gives way to a man who no longer knows whether staying on top of the situation or giving in will be more satisfying. Warsinske’s enigmatic Vanda is a true chameleon, changing instantly from a slightly vacant actress to the sophisticated, seductive woman of the world in the play and back again, making you wonder if her auditioning actress persona itself isn’t an act (more mirrors). The two develop a charismatic chemistry that converts changing a pair of boots into a sexual act.
Tracy Callahan’s direction is taut and her pacing unrelenting, and Keven Myhre’s pedestrian, institutional set contrasts sharply with the sexually charged action it contains. James Craig’s fluctuating lighting and Josh Martin’s dramatic sound design link the play’s outer and inner worlds, and K. L. Alberts’ costumes are kinky and eclectic.
Under its funny, entertaining veneer, “Venus in Fur” poses some intriguing questions about the way men and woman relate to each other in both life and literature. If nothing else, it will prompt some spirited discussion on the way home from the theater.
If you go
Bottom line • Powerhouse performances, witty dialogue, and plenty of sexual tension make “Venus in Fur” provocative and entertaining.
When • Reviewed on Friday; plays Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., through Nov. 3.
Where • Chapel Theatre at the Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Running time • One hour and 45 minutes (no intermission).
Tickets • Tickets are $23 to $42 with discounts for students, seniors, groups, and those under 30. Call 363-7522 or visit www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for tickets and information. The show contains adult language and situations.