“Colonial Players might just want to bring playwright David Ives on as a resident artist. Last year, Ives’ witty version of the 17th century French farce The Liar won the company the coveted Ruby Griffith Award from the British Embassy for best all-around production by a Washington-area community theater. Now, Venus in Fur — Ives’ take on a stage version of Venus in Furs, the 1870 novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — is equally entertaining and a perfect fit for Colonial’s intimate theater-in-the-round.
Yes, Sacher-Masoch is the man who, unwittingly, gave us the term masochism, and as this play within a play progresses, it’s not easy for us as an audience to discern the difference between masochism and sadism. And that’s the way Ives intends it.
Venus in Fur starts with thunder and lightning that portends the battle of the sexes we’re about to see, as playwright/director Thomas Novacek, cranky and spent after a day auditioning actresses without any classical training or “a particle of brain in their skulls,” is lamenting his plight on the phone with his fiancée. In walks young Vanda Jordan, profane, brash, beautiful and all wrong for the part. But she convinces Thomas to read her for the role, acting the male part himself, and we are off on a trip that is sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, but always riveting.
Is it a coincidence that her name, Vanda, is the same as the character’s (well, she admits, her name is Wanda but her parents always called her Vanda)? Is it just solid preparation that she comes with a big bag seemingly with a closetful of costumes, both his and hers, that are perfect for the roles? Is it coincidence that, after telling Thomas she quickly scanned the script’s pages on the train ride over, she actually has it memorized?
As Thomas and Vanda, Jeff Mocho and Natalie Nankervis are a fine match. He is the slightly nerdy, khaki-clad writer trying to bring to life a book he finds as deep and full of meaning as the cultists who read it in 1879. She is the firestorm that rips through his smugness by calling the book soft-core porn.
Both actors do a fine job moving quickly from their characters into the characters in Thomas’s play, with Nankervis especially effective switching off present-day Vanda’s excitable vocal staccato and sliding right into what can best be called a seducing dominatrix — with her subject more than willing to be the submissive. Both are able to give us a laugh-out-loud line (and there are plenty) one minute, while the next draw us into the emotions and motivations of the modern and 1870 characters they are portraying. It’s truly fine acting.
Set designer Ricardo Seijo has turned Colonial’s stage into a very realistic yet generic New York rehearsal hall, complete with fluorescent lights and fire sprinkler pipes along the ceiling and a brick wall along one side with realistic sealed windows that hint at the color outside while simultaneously reminding us that we are captives to … what? The theatrical process? The director-actor dynamic? The degradation bestowed by a dominatrix?
Eric Lund’s stark at one moment and ethereal the next; lighting and Ben Cornwell’s sound add to the mystique that carries us from present day into 1870 and back. Kaelynn Miller’s costumes for Vanda, meanwhile, might make even the most jaded of theatergoers feel just a touch voyeuristic … which is exactly what Vanda would want, of course.
If all this sounds like you’re in for an evening of whips and chains, fear not. This is a finely crafted script, nominated for a Tony Award in 2012, brilliantly brought to life on Colonial’s in-the-round stage by director Jim Gallagher and his stellar cast. Gallagher’s deft directorial hand and the complete believability of Mocho and Nankervis carry us on a visual and emotional journey that has us questioning what we think we know about relationships, sex and power.
About 90 minutes with no intermission. ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (and 7:30pm Jan. 17) thru Jan. 23. Colonial Players Theatre, Annapolis, $20 w/discounts, rsvp: 410-268-7373.
Director: Jim Gallagher. Producer: Jason Vaughn. Stage manager: Shirley Panek; Set designer: Ricardo Seijo. Lighting designer: Eric Lund. Sound Designer: Ben Cornwell. Costume Designer: Kaelynn Miller.