Kacey Griffin, as the protagonist of David Ives’ terrific play Venus in Fur, gives the best performance I’ve seen in San Antonio in months. Sexy, slinky and subversive, Griffin anchors Ives’ marvelous exploration of power and pelts, as a down-and-out stage director (Michael Holley) attempts to mount his own adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s classic novel of sensuality and flagellation involving haughty Wanda von Dunajew and her adoring slave Gregor. (It’s from Sacher-Masoch’s name that we’ve been blessed with the term (sado)masochism: Now there’s a nifty factoid for the whole family.) But the director’s plans go awry when bad luck and a terrible storm threaten to derail auditions: only the last-minute arrival of the mysterious Vanda appears to save the day. Or does it?
I won’t give away much of the plot: part of the fun is that Ives’ (apparent) two-hander is really a four-hander, as director Thomas and actress Vanda constantly slide in and out of roles (as well as skin-tight leather, and, occasionally, wrist-restraints). Thus, every 10 minutes, Ives—like clockwork—reconfigures the power dynamics between these two (or four?) characters. Sometimes that reconfiguration involves the characters’ physical positions—a mere table can turn the tables—and sometimes it’s clothing—a simple valet’s frock demotes the imperious Thomas from tyrant to lowly footman. (And I do mean foot-man. Fetishists, rejoice!) Sometimes Ives plays instead with the bizarre rituals of an actor’s audition; a naked display of power even in the best of circumstances. The whole play is a theme-and-variations on the erotics of domination.
Now perhaps this all sounds insufferably meta- or impossibly academic, and I would wager that a production of Venus in Fur with bad (or even mediocre) acting would be excruciating, and not in a delicious, S&M sort of way. But Griffin is electrifying; she effortlessly (and often hilariously) glides between the daffy, wisecracking Vanda of today and the prim, tortured Wanda of our Austrian yesteryear. (In this, she is helped by Kaitlin Muse’s effective lighting.) Holley’s role is less flashy, but he makes a solid foil to Griffin’s more flamboyant performance—and in his quieter moments, we can discern glimpses of a piercing desire, a desire that might explain Thomas’ attraction to all permutations of Vanda, whether on the page or on the stage. Director John O’Neill keeps the tempo brisk—it’s not a play that can survive any sagging—and sees the curtain fall at the 100-minute mark. Just right.
Last week, the opening of the godawful Ghost: The Musical taught us all a terrible lesson—that it takes more than flashy projection and blinking LEDs to fashion an interesting play. Venus in Fur makes that same point the old-fashioned way. It turns out all you really need for a crackling evening of theater are two actors, a sofa and an excellent script. Let the Fur fly.
Venus in Fur
8pm Fri, Sat, Sun;
800 W Ashby
Through Feb 9