Art in Ambiguity

Venus in Fur starts with a casting couch and continues with a smart script

The stage is a large, empty room, white brick exposed, old windows cracked open, pipes exposed, fluorescent lighting. It's the kind of room used by the cast and crew of a play in rehearsal, or for auditions. Other than a table set up for use as a desk, it contains very little, except a simple divan situated in the middle of the room.

Ah, the casting couch. You know, the furniture that got its name because of the countless actresses who submitted to the director's sexual wishes to score a role.

But in David Ives' spunky Venus in Fur, with a strong production by Arizona Theater Company, that couch undergoes a profound transformation, given an ironic spin by a ditzy-seeming—but mysteriously self-certain—actress who arrives inexcusably late for an audition. She insists, in ways that demonstrate she will not take no for an answer, that the director, who is also the playwright, allow her to read for the part. What follows is 90 minutes or so of smartly comic dialogue, surprising exchanges and a thoughtful unfolding of a spirited riff on the nature of gender, sex, pleasure and power.

The story begins as Thomas (Michael Tisdale), speaking on a cellphone to his girlfriend, bemoans with all the lively force of a poor put-upon artist his inability to find an actress fit to play the part of Wanda in a play he has adapted from the 1870 novella, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. (It is for him that the concept of masochism, or deriving sexual pleasure from experiencing pain, is derived.)

As he gets ready to leave, a flash of lightning and burst of thunder provide a dramatic entrance for Vanda (Gillian Williams), umbrella blown inside out, limping because of a broken-heeled shoe that she clutches in her hand along with a large bag of what we will discover are props she has thought might be needed. She takes off her coat, revealing a black, skin-tight, dominatrix-type get-up, complete with dog collar. She is as large a presence as a goddess, though a disheveled one perhaps, talking unceasingly, pleading, cajoling—demanding—that Thomas let her audition. She claims she is perfect for the role, even as she also claims to have barely looked at the script. Although he tries to turn her away, convinced with every passing moment that she is yet another example of the unsatisfactory actresses he has seen all day, we can see a hint of intrigue. When she surprisingly begins a memorized scene with a perfect accent and embodiment of Wanda, the play's main character, we see his surprise and increasing curiosity. When she insists that he take the script and act the scene with her, he acquiesces, donning the costume piece she has brought with her. The shift of power has begun. Or perhaps it's already well underway.

This production, which is a joint effort with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, is well put together by director Shana Cooper, who has the advantage of a couple of fine actors quite capable of investing themselves in these characters who enter a world where boundaries are so fluid. From an unrelenting demand for an audition, both funny and uncomfortably excessive, to scenes from the play enacted as both assume roles, to Vanda's abrupt breaking of character to challenge the notions that Thomas has espoused in the play, to intimate exchanges that expose vulnerability and desire, Williams and Tisdale embody Ives' characters with skill.

Williams has the better part, and her ability to instantly change gears, completely befuddling Thomas and providing some rich comedy for us, is delightful and terrible, a compelling combination of the ordinary and the powerful, the object and the dominator. Tisdale, skillfully switching between the director and the directed, offers himself honestly as he reckons with the discovery of just who he might be and how he needs to negotiate that, until now unknown, subterranean self. They both give wonderful performances.

The world of the theater, and auditions in particular, is the perfect setting for a story about libidinous passion and the suffering many of its practitioners must be nourished by. Just as Vanda and Henry discover, the practice of theater often obfuscates the boundaries of life and the art it attempts to create by using living humans in its composition. The medium, by its very nature, results in a heartless objectification of actors who have no recourse but to submit to their calling's heartbreaks, allowing those heartbreaks to become the fuel they use to survive in their landscape of powerlessness. "Hey," Vanda declares. "You don't have to tell me about masochism. I'm in the theater."

There is a bit of imperfection in Ives' very smart script, or at least in this production. For one thing, there's a lack of credible sexual heat. Another is that it's hard to reckon what exactly is at stake. Who, really, is Vanda and what does she want? Is hers just the most well-orchestrated audition in the history of theater? It's much more than that, isn't it? And it's really not just a whack at discrimination or gender dominance, is it? And maybe, it's Thomas' own fantasy, encouraged by the thunderstorm raging outside and exercised as he prepares to leave for the day, a dream of archetypes and gods and goddesses.

Ives makes a big deal out of the difference between "ambivalent" and "ambiguous"—it comes up a couple of times in the play. Maybe he's coaxing us to be comfortable with the story's ambiguities. And there are many.

Ultimately, Venus in Fur is a pleasing production full of what we love to experience at the theater: insightful direction, fine design elements (especially the set by Sibyl Wikersheimer) and a funny, involving and thought-provoking story delivered by skillful artists.