David Ives’ Venus In Fur has come to town, or about as close to L.A. as she’s going to get for a while, which is more than enough reason to head down south to catch San Diego Repertory Theatre’s mesmerizing production of the 2012 Best Play Tony nominee.

Venus7 L-R Jeffrey Meek, Caroline Kinsolving 5x7 300 dpi - photo credit Daren Scott The thunderbolt that starts Venus off with a literal bang is but the first clue that some exhilarating theatrical fireworks are about to ensue. The second is the arrival of Vanda Jordan (Caroline Kinsolving) at the rented studio where writer-director Thomas Novachek (Jeffrey Meek) has only just finished auditioning thirty-five cringe-worthy actresses for the title role in his stage adaptation of Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s erotic 1870 novella Venus In Furs.

Hours too late for her 2:15 appointment, Vanda seems at first to be the polar opposite of the “sexy-slash-articulate young woman with some classical training and a brain in her skull” that Thomas has been seeking in vain all day. In fact, with a mouth like a truck-driver and an outfit straight out of your local S&M store, Vanda appears hardly likelier to snag the role of Venus In Fur’s elegant, sophisticated heroine than the three-dozen others before her even if she does happen to have the same name as Sacher-Masoch’s fictional Vanda von Dunayev.

Venus10 L-R Caroline Kinsolving, Jeffrey Meek 5x7 300dpi  - photo credit Daren Scott Though Thomas would like nothing better than meet up with his girlfriend after a long day of fruitless auditioning, Vanda is hardly one to take no for an answer. It matters not that the director has no record of her appointment, nor does it faze Vanda to hand over a wrinkled headshot and paltry résumé, nor does she care that the reader has gone on home for the day. As long as she’s here, why shouldn’t Thomas let her give it a go? She has, after all, brought along a “long-ass” dress that’s just right for the fictional Vanda (because “everybody hated their body back then”) and she’s somehow gotten hold of Thomas’s whole script rather than just the usual sides and she’s even “flipped through it quick on the train.”

And so, even though Vanda’s had the nerve to call Thomas’s play “S&M porn” and not the “great love story” he believes it to be, the would-be lead in his next production soon has Thomas prepping her for the scene, letting her her fiddle with the lights to give the studio a more dramatic look, agreeing to let her try on “one of those phony transatlantic accents” for size, and reading the role of male lead Severin von Kushemski himself.

Venus6 L-R Jeffrey Meek, Caroline Kinsolving 5x7 300dpi - photo credit Daren Scott Given all of the above, it’s no wonder that Thomas—and we in the audience—are hardly prepared when the ditz we’ve been getting to know over the past ten minutes undergoes a startling transformation from bimbo to goddess as Vanda launches into the first of Vanda von Dunayev’s speeches in a perfectly polished European accent, her eyes scarcely glancing at the script.

And this is but the first of a multitude of surprises playwright Ives has in store for us as little by little Vanda begins to exert the same power over Thomas as the fictional Vanda came to hold over lover-turned-slave Kushemski—and the line between the real Vanda and Thomas and the fictional characters they are playing becomes ever blurrier as we hurtle towards Venus In Fur’s explosive climax.

Venus8 L-R Jeffrey Meek, Caroline Kinsolving 5x7 300dpi - photo credit Daren Scott If ever there was a play that will get audiences talking once the house lights come back up following its intermissionless ninety real-time minutes, Venus In Fur is that play. Who is it that holds the real power in opposite-sex relationships? How much does gender count in the way we assume others to be? Which comes first, the power or the gender or the power or the gender? (How about that for a sexual twist on the age-old chicken-egg argument?) And just who the hell is Vanda Jordan? All this is likely to provide plenty of food for post-performance debate.

What is not open to discussion is the power of Sam Woodhouse and Kim Rubenstein’s direction (how brilliant to have male-female co-directors!) or the magnificence of the two stars’ performances. (That Kinsolving and Meek are Southern California-based actors is but one reason to cheer San Diego Rep’s acquisition of the rights to Venus In Fur.)

Venus9 L-R Jeffrey Meek, Caroline Kinsolving 5x7 300dpi - photo credit Daren Scott Caroline Kinsolving has been terrific before, her performance as Jennie Malone in Neil Simon’s Chapter Two having won her a Memorable Lead Performance Scenie, but her previous work pales in comparison to her out-and-out brilliance as Vanda, a role which won its originator Nina Aranda the Tony and could well score Kinsolving similar honors when San Diego award season rolls around. Essentially playing two very different roles in a single play, Kinsolving’s transformation from 2013 Vanda to her 1870 namesake (and back and forth again and again) is absolutely stunning. I can only imagine how many actresses Kinsolving beat out for the role(s) of Vanda. Her revelatory work makes it no wonder she got the part(s).

Though the role of Thomas isn’t nearly as complex or showy as the two Vandas, Meek gives as good as he gets, the dynamic leading man proving a worthy partner to his costar and adversary to both Vandas, and increasingly so as Ives’ script has Thomas coming ever more under Vandas’ spell. (The apostrophe is deliberately placed.)

Venus3 L-R Jeffrey Meek, Caroline Kinsolving 5x7 300dpi - photo credit Daren Scott San Diego Rep’s decision to stage Venus In Fur in the round turns audiences into flies on the rented studio’s four walls, and if the Lyceum Theatre’s smaller “Lyceum Space” could use a bit of refurbishing, its somewhat rundown look works for this piece. Scenic designer Robin Sanford Roberts gives us a nearly bare studio, Venus In Fur’s requisite divan about the only furniture on the main playing area, but the four corners are strewn with various theatrical paraphernalia that you might find in a studio for rent. Jennifer Braun Gittings’ costumes are precisely as Ives would have them, both the contemporary characters’ street wear and the outfits Vanda has brought along with her in her voluminous bag of tricks. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s ever-changing lighting just keeps getting more dramatic to reflect the escalating onstage fireworks, and the same can be said for George Yé’s sensational sound design, whose first bolt of thunder, we soon find out, will hardly be the production’s last.

Dawn Moore is dramaturg. Heather M. Brose is stage manager and Jessica Isaac assistant stage manager. Annalice Heinz is assistant director and Karyn Lawrence is assistant lighting designer. Casting is by Jacole Kitchen.

Venus2 L-R Jeffrey Meek, Caroline Kinsolving 5x7 300dpi - photo credit Daren Scott Snagging the rights to Venus In Fur marks a major coup for San Diego Repertory Theatre. That this very first (I believe) Southern California production happens to be a couple hours south of Los Angeles ought to prove only a slight inconvenience to L.A. theatergoers. Trust me. Venus In Fur is well worth the drive.

Lyceum Theatre at Horton Plaza, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
November 24, 2013
Photos: Daren Scott

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