Provocative, daring, audacious, intriguing, and sexy as all get-out, David Ives’ Venus In Fur has at long last made it to L.A.-adjacent Costa Mesa following dozens of regional productions, giving its arrival at South Coast Rep bona fide event status. That director Casey Stangl and stars Jaimi Paige and Graham Hamilton deliver the goods … and then some, makes a drive down to Orange County an absolute must for any theater lover worth his or her salt.
Theatrical fireworks are soon to explode at the rented studio where writer-director Thomas Novachek (Graham Hamilton) 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 once Vanda Jordan (Jaimi Paige) has arrived to try her hand (and statuesque, curvaceous body) at the role.
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.
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 has 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 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.
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.
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 matter in how we assume others to be? Which comes first, the power or the gender … or the gender or the power? (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.
In plays as diverse as Sarah Ruhl’s frothy In The Next Room (or the vibrator play), Ives’ farcical translation/adaptation of The Liar, the epic The Curse Of Oedipus, and SCR Theatre For Young Audiences treats James And The Giant Peach and Junie B. Jones, 3-time Scenie-winning Best Director Stangl has proven herself both the epitome of versatility and an actor’s (and audience’s) director extraordinaire, and in Venus In Fur she has done some of her finest work to date, both in her exciting use of the Julianne Argyros Stage and in the superb performances she has elicited from her two spectacular stars.
That Stangl has reunited the LA Weekly Theater Award and Scenie-winning leads of last year’s Tender Napalm to play Thomas and Vanda is the very definition of inspired casting.
Undertaking the role that won Nina Arianda the Tony, the sensational Paige proves herself equally statuette-worthy, stunning as all get-out in her transformation from 2014 Vanda to her 1870 namesake (and back and forth again and again). Utterly fearless and effortlessly mesmerizing, Paige commands the stage whether wild-and-wacky or sexy-and-seductive, and if the two Vandas should ever become one, watch out. The furies of hell may well have met their match.
As for Hamilton, not only does the handsome leading man reveal himself to be one of our most charismatic and gifted young actors, he makes for a thoroughly worthy adversary to both 21st and 19th-century Vandas in a performance that deepens to devastating effect as Ives’ script has Thomas coming ever more under the two Vandas’ spell.
Scenic designer Keith Mitchell gives us Thomas’s rented studio in all its industrial starkness, particularly under the fluorescent light that is just the start of Elizabeth Harper’s dramatic, mood-enhancing lighting design. Costume designer David Kay Mickelsen gets top marks as well, both for the contemporary characters’ street wear and for the outfits Vanda has brought along with her in her voluminous bag of tricks. Jeff Polunas’s electric sound design completes the production’s Broadway-worthy production design, escalating the onstage fireworks to sonic perfection.
Also receiving deserved program credit are dramaturg Andy Knight, production assistant Bradley Zipser, assistant director Desiree York, dialect coach Philip D. Thompson, fight coordiantor Ken Merckx, and more.
Jackie S. Hill is production manager. Jennifer Ellen Butler is stage manager. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA.
It’s taken nearly five years for Venus In Fur to make it from off-Broadway to Greater Los Angeles—far too long for a play as oft-produced as Ives’ has become in the ensuing years to reach L.A./O.C. audiences. Fortunately for all concerned, production of this caliber makes it very much worth the wait.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
October 14, 2014
Photos: Debora Robinson/SCR