Psycho-Sexual 'Venus in Fur' Sizzles At TheaterWorks
By FRANK RIZZO
The show: "Venus in Fur" at Hartford's TheaterWorks
First impressions: The notion of role-playing has a multitude of meanings in David Ives' clever psycho-sexual comedy, that takes Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's infamous erotic 1870 novella and places it in a parallel universe of the modern day theater. Liv Rooth gives a continually amazing performance as the kooky actress auditioning for the role of the strict seductress. David Christopher Wells is convincing as he turns from dominating to submissive director as he learns a thing or two about women, fantasy and gods.
What's it about: Vanda, a ditzy, desperate, hyper-active actress, arrives late to audition for a stage version of the sado-masochistic novel with a bag full of props and costumes. The play's adapter-director Thomas is a condescending sexist but is worn down by Wanda's loopy determination to get her chance to show her stuff and finally relents to her insistence for her chance to play the part of the aristocratic woman drawn into the world of S & M.
But things aren't what they seem as the actress all-too-convincingly takes on a persona or two that startles, intrigues and seduces the director who doesn't have has much control as he thought. But Ives assuredly is in charge as he creates parallel worlds that tie into his theme of power and about those who exercise it and how: in the bedroom, on stage and in the world.
Ah, the ditzy gal. The stereotype lives on: You might think that at the start of the production but that's all part of Ives' great master plan that plays with expectations about dangerous desires. Wanda turns out to be more than that. Much more. The play has a series of stunning revelations, none as delicious as the moment when the caricature of the dumb blonde transforms itself into something far nobler, mysterious and tempting. Watching Rooth go back and forth in these two identities is one of the play's great delights.
Rooth understudied the role for Nina Arianda, who won a Tony Award for her performance on Broadway. But the versatile actress makes the part her sensational own, tapping into the same comedic skills she showed (also in her underwear) several seasons back in Hartford Stage's “Noises Off.” But Ives' has more in mind than to do a simple twist on a sex romp. Rooth also transfixes the audience with a mesmerizing turn as the heroine from another era who opens herself up to more demanding roles.
Wells has fun, too, as the pompous director, especially when he takes on the role in the audition of the play-within-a-play's leading (and led) man, who can only feel sexual pleasure when under submission. Wells makes you believe in his ride down the slippery slope of make-believe as he gets punished -- much to the audience's pleasure -- in ways he may not have anticipated.
Interim artistic director Rob Ruggiero stages the work with a steady and sure hand, keeping it real, intimate and funny. Donald Eastman's set nicely evokes the cold, cruel world of audition rooms.
Who will like it: Women, control freaks, actors.
Who won't: Casting agents (they're not part of the process), some male playwrights.
For the kids: No. Though there is no nudity, the talk of sexual dynamics is adult.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Sexy, slick, strict, “Venus in Fur” gives new meaning to phrase “acting out.”
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: Sex isn't always about nudity and wild bedroom antics. You probably won't see a hotter scene on stage than the one here when Thomas slowly dresses a lounging Wanda with thigh-high leather boots. But what is an audience anyway but a gathering of voyeurs, which is all part of Ives' playful head trip?
The basics: The play runs through Nov. 11 at 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes with no intermission. No one under the age of 18 because of adult language and strong sexual content. Tickets are $50 to $63; college-age student rush tickets are $17, subject to availability. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m; and weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m. There is no Sunday matinee on Nov. 4 but there will be a special Sunday night performance, Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. Information: 860-527-7838 and www.theaterworkshartford.org.