Review: “Venus in Fur” at Marin Onstage (*****)

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

 Tyler McKenna as Thomas Novachek/ Severin von Kushemski and Melissa Claire as Vanda Jordan/Vanda von Dunayev in the Marin Onstage production of David Ives's "Venus In Fur." Photo Credit: Marin Onstage.
Tyler McKenna and Melissa Claire in “Venus In Fur.” Photo Credit: Marin Onstage.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

What a shocker! David Ives’s 2010 “Venus in Fur” is a comedy, a drama, a two actor psychological thriller.  The play is S&M, a version of the 19th century novel “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, as in masochism. It’s also a Greek drama, The Bacchae and The Oresteia, with gender-bending and a classical goddess. It’s a behind the scenes anti-romantic, anti-imperialist comment on theater, itself. Ives’s “Venus in Fur” has been produced promiscuously all over the country in theaters small and big. It’s been made into a Polanski movie, too.

If you want to see a show that is consummately acted and directed, and which features actors who are incomparable, and up to the highest levels, then get over to Marin Onstage to see Melissa Claire and Tyler McKenna in “Venus in Fur” at the Belrose Theater, in San Rafael. If you are quick, you can see it before it closes Saturday, May 21st. You will be glad you did.

Let the epic struggle begin: “Venus in Fur” is all about master and slave, power and submission, sex and sensuality; by the end it’s pretty clear who is on Top. This is no polite struggle — this is the conflict between the oppressed and the elite in any era. The theater director Thomas Novachek (McKenna) stands in for those who rule by inherited education, privilege, and social class. His opposite, Vanda Jordan (Claire) represents those who aspire to overthrow the established power. Make no mistake, the political “trumps” the psychological in this S.M. fever-dream. Watch who wins and what forces stand behind her. When you think about who and what Vanda embodies in “Venus in Fur,” you will find your answer hidden in David Ives’ political and personal puzzle.

The small theater held a packed house, with lots of folks at the little night club tables in the sweet former church that is the Belrose. There’s a party atmosphere, with drinks and snacks on offer. Vanda Jordan rushes in out of a rainstorm, a hurried, harried New York gypsy, fresh off the subway, hours late for her audition. She runs into the smug,self-important playwright-director, an imposing and handsome Thomas Novacheck. She’s alternately humble and cheeky, and runs through a series of slavish and serious pleas to get the director to audition her, at this late hour.

The two of them play a cat and mouse game, with the writer-director clearly playing his superior role, but with flashes of what is to come. Amidst wet weather and ominous thunderclaps, their intimate “reading” of his play begins, with mystery and magic looming. Thomas plays Severin von Kushemski, a young 19th century romantic poet; and Vanda plays Vanda von Dunayev, an Eastern European aristocrat.  What about the coincidence between Vanda’s and the character’s name? How are we to account for that? Is she somehow fated to play the part? Or, are there higher forces at work here, some mystery at the base of their awkward encounter and intimate debates over art, acting, and ambivalence?

The play, following the Sacher-Masoch novel, written in formal, elegant, and outdated lingo, shows an encounter between the callow poet and a forceful woman. The play-within-the-play melds with the seduction of Thomas by Vanda—with the two stories mingling, brilliantly, keeping us on the alert. A grand array of styles and diction make the play a poetic display, an actor’s dream, and a comic delight. The poet — or is it the writer — was seduced and beaten by a powerful aunt, while lying on her furs, when he was a child—or so he tells us. These are the elements from the novel that Thomas has chosen to relive in his play.

Melissa Claire is simply amazing, going in a flash from comic, to tragic, to melodramatic heights. She strips down to her leather dominatrix costume, prepared to do this play. She gives a master-class in acting styles, starting with a ditzy chorus girl and then embodying a grand diva, with stops beyond to the divine. The device of the play-within-the play lets her show us her flawless embodiment of a contemporary New Yorker in slang and obscenity. Then she becomes an elegant 1800’s Lady, displaying eloquence and emblematic diction. Claire’s performance rivets the audience and takes our breath away.

Tyler McKenna, in the role of the self-possessed Thomas, proves a worthy opponent, but it becomes clear after a good deal of seduction and struggle, that he is no match for the Divine Vanda. His adaptation of the Sacher-Masoch 1870 novel comes under fire and severe critique from the supposedly ditzy young actress, who has prepared suspiciously well for this audition. She knows the script, performs with genius, and has a huge bag full of costumes, dresses and coats, for both of them. Another mystery.

A great ninety minutes at the BelRose Theater in San Rafael. Don’t miss it. It’s Fun. Note the Titian painting on the wall, a Met Museum poster of the “Venus with a Mirror,” the nude Venus swathed in fur in the Titziano. Note the period play posters on the other wall, echoes of all kinds of plays from the 60s and beyond, many dealing with the subjugation of women and the powerless.

I had never seen David Ives’s 2010 play before, nor the Polanski movie, but I doubt if there’s a more interesting or funnier version of the play, anywhere. Melissa Claire writes the book on this play, and brings it down to earth and makes it fun, every single moment. Claire and McKenna make a riveting couple of antagonists.

I was surprised, shocked, and ecstatic. Go see it. There is no better work than these witty and mind-bending commentaries on male-female, submissive-dominant, social class, feminism, sexuality, and patriarchal privilege. There’s also role-reversal, as in The Bacchae. And don’t be surprised if you get a vision of Venus, suddenly displaying herself on the sofa.

Director Carl Jordan and his battling duo have enchanted the play on the page, and made it richer and more intriguing, with high comedy that tips the scale of social justice, just in time. The San Rafael production reveals the cultural and political point behind a thrilling sexual romp in and out of the theater. Don’t miss it.

“Venus in Fur” by David Ives (2010), by Marin Onstage, plays at the Belrose Theater through Saturday, May 21, 2016. For further information, click here.

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“Venus in Fur” by David Ives, produced by Marin Onstage. Director: Carl Jordan. Stage Manager: Mia Glenn-Shuster. Costumes: Melissa Claire. Lighting Design: Frank Sarubbi. Sound Design: Rick Banghart. Set Design/Producer: Gary Gonser.

Cast: Thomas Novacheck/Severin von Kushemski: Tyler McKenna. Vanda Jordan/Vanda von Dunayev: Melissa Claire.

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