It was a dark and stormy -- and 50-Shades-of-Grey-kind-of -- night. If that opening sentence piques your interest, you're going to love David Ives' play VENUS IN FUR opening the 2012-2013 season over at TheaterWorks Hartford. If not, you might want to stay home.
While thunder and lightning rage (thank light and sound designers John Lasiter, Vincent Olivieri and Beth Lake), playwright Thomas (David Christopher Wells) prepares to head home to his fiancée after a long day of frustrating auditions during which he hasn't found an actress to play Vanda, the character in his adaptation of a 19th-century erotic novel about sadomasochism.
In walks a ditsy blonde, delayed by the storm, who begs for a chance to read for the part. Her name is Vanda (Liv Rooth), after all. She was born to play Vanda. Thomas finally agrees to read a few pages with her and find out whether "she can take direction."
She quickly sets about setting the mood in the drab rehearsal room (Donald Eastman, set design) and getting into one of the many costume items she has brought in an oversized bag (Alejo Vietti, costume design).
Magically, the crass blonde is transformed into the polished woman from the erotic novel and Thomas, intrigued, eagerly steps into the role of the nobleman who begs her to dominate him. Vanda somehow seems to have the lines memorized and they begin an extended exploration of the script. Initially he sees it as a serious love story, but Vanda sees it as porn.
Rooth and Wells step in and out of characters, switching different voices – sometimes in mid sentence -- as Thomas and Vanda play the characters and step back to discuss their motivation or what might improve a scene in the play.
While the characters in the play change roles – Vanda agrees to overpower her lover and make him her slave -- the dynamics between the in-charge playwright and worshipping actress also switch and the modern-day Vanda starts to sense that Thomas would welcome a firmer hand from her. As the "audition" progresses, truth is revealed about Thomas' relationship with his fiancée and about why Vanda really is there with him.
The play is fun to watch because of the morphing between characters and there are some moments of humor. The thrust (pardon the pun) of the 90 minutes, however, is to provide a titillating glimpse into the word of sadomasochism. The dialogue from Thomas' play is all about it as the nobleman details his abuse as a child by an aunt who opened his eyes to the world of domination. The language gets very specific as Vanda steps into the role of dominatrix.
"There is nothing more sexual than pain, nothing more pleasurable than degradation," he tells her."
Meanwhile, the theme plays out in the present too as Thomas and Vanda's relationship heats up when the balance of power shifts. (No one under the age of 18 is allowed for this show because of the adult language and sexual content.)
There really was an 1870 novella called "Venus in Furs" by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch for whom the kinky type of sex is named and the current blockbuster success of the "50 Shades of Grey" novels proves interest hasn't waned.
Ives' play was a success both Off-Broadway and on, due greatly to the powerhouse, breakout performance of Nina Arianda who won this year's Tony as Best Actress in a play for her turn as Vanda (Rooth was her understudy on Broadway).
Here, under the direction of Rob Ruggiero, the play seems less complex, the subtle changes more pronounced, the mystery more telegraphed. Rooth's ditsy blonde seems forced and surprisingly there isn't much sizzle between the actors who reportedly are romantically involved in real life.
But if you, as Thomas says, "go to plays for passion we don't get in life," get right over to the TheaterWorks Box Office.
Venus in Fur runs at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through Nov. 11; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Weekend matinees 2:30 pm (except Nov. 4 – no matinee and special evening performance at 7:30) Tickets $17 college student; $50 general admission; $13 extra for center reserved seating (860) 527-7838; www.theatreworkshartford.org.