Ready to take a walk on the kinky side? It may not be quite what you’re expecting. In lo-fi productions’ latest offering, at the Isabel M. Crouch Reader’s Theater on the NMSU campus, Venus In Fur reminds us that cutting edge theatre with a message is alive and well in southern New Mexico.
The battle of the sexes gets yet another overhaul in David Ives’ Tony-nominated stageplay, but this time it’s the rich and fertile ground of what is arguably one of the most influential and definitely controversial books ever written that provides the subtext. Published in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the novel Venus In Fur caused a sensation in prim and proper Victorian society and quickly became the manifesto for every base and carnal desire bubbling under the surface of the corset and top hat set.
So influential was the book, in fact, that Sacher-Masoch was placed alongside that other pioneer of sexual deviancy, the Marquis de Sade, when his name became synonymous with self-inflicted degradation and humiliation and the second half of one of the most often used acronyms in the English language: S&M. As the basis for a smart and sexy take on sexual politics, and a play-within-a-play framework that allows for… ahem… deviation from the source material, Ives has created a provocative piece of stagecraft that shines under the skilled direction of Michael Wise. It is also yet another ideal playground for Brandon Brown’s actor-centric, bare-bones team of merry thespians at lo-fi productions.
A nominee for several 2012 Tony Awards on Broadway, and a winner for Best Actress, Venus In Fur introduces us to Thomas, a gifted and demanding playwright who has adapted a play based on the classic erotic novel, and Vanda, a disarmingly talented young actress determined to land the lead in the play, despite being several hours late for her audition. Forcing Thomas to “give her a chance,” Vanda pulls out all the stops to impress him and, in the process, gives a riveting audition that will blur the lines between fantasy and reality and become a tense and erotically-charged cat-and-mouse game of seduction, servility and power.
As Vanda, the rough-around-the-edges actress who is so much more than she appears to be, Nicole Bartlett is a revelation. A relative newcomer to Las Cruces community theatre stages, she is at once effusive and demure, given to jarring outbursts that take her from carefully crafted, Victorian effete to glib, New York debutante and back again with surgical timing. She handles the shifts from playfully coy to militantly feminist with an ease that belies her years and portends a long and very successful career in the theatre, if that’s the direction she chooses to go. It should also be noted that the girl can work a pair of thigh-high, leather spiked heels like a pro.
Eric Young continues to prove himself as one of the finest actors working Las Cruces stages today. His decisions are always solid and his delivery of nuanced lines, though at times a bit too studied, is galvanizing. As Thomas, the protagonist of the play, he is effectively arrogant and dismissive. When he asks “Am I insufferably pedantic?” the audience agrees with Vanda’s affirmative response, which makes it all the more delicious when he is taken down a few pegs by the guileful machinations of his disarmingly seductive adversary. The dance of domination and submission is made all the more intriguing as Thomas is broken down to his baser elements and eventually into a startling role-reversal, a transformation that Young achieves adroitly.
In classic lo-fi style, the production is as bare bones as one can get, with minimal set pieces, lighting and sound, yet still manages to draw the viewer into a world not often glimpsed by polite society. That dedication to allowing the acting to sell the project, rather than opulent staging, is one of the very elements that makes lo-fi productions so delectably unique.
Gifted with a sharply written script, the two actors use it to launch themselves into the stratosphere with electrifying explorations of timely themes that, at times, leave the audience pondering, while at others give them a knowing nudge in the ribs with wickedly off-color humor. In the end, the roller coaster ride that ensues is so enthralling, one doesn’t even notice that 90 minutes have passed until the moment when the stage is plunged into darkness signifying its end.
A smart, witty and at times off-putting study on the subject of gender politics, with adult language and themes, Venus In Fur may not be for everybody, but for those who are willing to leave their inner prude at home and venture into uncharted territory, it can be a richly rewarding experience—if for no other reason than to bear witness to two of the most remarkable performances of the season.
Oh, and as a sidebar, it may interest those who enjoy this play that Roman Polanski has turned it into a film starring Emmanuele Seigner and Mathieu Amalric. You heard it here first.
Lo-fi productions’ Venus In Fur runs Fridays and Saturdays through July 13 at the Isabel M. Crouch Readers Theater, across the parking lot from Barnes & Noble on the New Mexico State University campus. All performances begin at 8pm. Tickets are $7 at the door. Seating is limited, so get there early.