Venus in Fur Rules at Twilight
By Amy Millay
David Ives’ play Venus in Fur is either an actor’s wildest dream or worst nightmare: it features only two actors, switching fluidly between roles as they perform a play-within-a-play onstage for an uninterrupted ninety minutes. It’s difficult material that could easily go sideways, exploring sado-masochistic relationships and using portions of an 1870 novel. Fortunately, under Alicia Turvin’s strong direction, Twilight Theater Company’s current production is more than up for the challenge.
The action takes place in New York City, in a dingy basement rehearsal space. When we first meet playwright Thomas (Jeff Giberson), he’s lost all hope of finding an actress to star in his latest work---a stage adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs. But, when a harried young actress named Vanda (Jaiden Wirth) rushes in, begging for an audition, his world shifts sideways. As the two of them read Thomas’ play aloud, they seemingly become the characters they’re performing, until the audience is no longer sure what’s real and what’s fiction.
Although the play-within-the-play concerns a sado-masochistic relationship, Venus in Fur is less about sado-masochism, and more about the question of whether the dominant or submissive party is the more powerful. Thomas and Vanda deconstruct the power struggles inherent in numerous relationships: man-woman, actor-director, writer-character, actor-audience. They flip-flop between control and passivity, teasing each other and, by extension, the audience.
The script itself is sometimes problematic. Ives has a brilliant ear for dialogue, but devotes too much time to self-indulgent ruminations on the struggles of being a writer. But Turvin and her cast overcome the weaknesses by not taking it too seriously. Through a sense of humor, impeccable pacing, and clear character choices, they focus on making this a play about two human beings, rather than a play about ideas. The director and cast show an impressive instinct for constant emotional switches and plot twists.
On the design front, the show is solid. Turvin’s set and Robin Pair’s lighting are simple, but perfectly capture the feeling of a basement where artistic hopes have gone to die. The spare gray walls, stark lights, and industrial support beam nicely contrast with a softly lit, strategically placed window. With only one door on the set, there’s an immediate sense of being trapped, which suits the story well. The rain and thunder sound effects add atmospheric touches, though at times the rain is a bit too loud and competes with some of Giberson’s lines.
The costuming is fairly straightforward and, since the play is set in the present, also works well. The program credits Mishelle Apalategui “and cast” for costumes and props, so credit belongs to whomever chose the gauzy period gown that Wirth wears when Vanda is performing the play-within-the-play. The translucent fabric over a black bra and underwear is a fun contrast, reminiscent of a Carrie Bradshaw outfit in Sex and the City.
The most compelling reason to see this production, however, is the acting. The two actors navigate dizzying emotional turns with energy and conviction. As Thomas, Giberson perfectly embodies a cynical writer slowly losing himself to various passions. His imposing physical presence nicely contrasts with his choice of a softer voice for the character. He’s fun in Thomas’ jaded mode, but his strongest moments are the quiet, emotional ones. He also pulls off some pivotal character changes through physicality and facial expression alone.
His counterpart, Wirth, is magnetic as Vanda. She shows fantastic emotional depth as she bounces from manic pixie dream girl to stoic heroine to gutted lover. She projects a physical and emotional ease that is rare to see in an actor, never mind one wearing sky-high heels. She just looks comfortable onstage. Watching her act is akin to watching a dancer perform a ballet.
Perhaps most commendably, Wirth and Giberson never lose their connection to each other—either as actors or as characters. That’s a real feat given that they must ping-pong all over the stage physically and emotionally.
“In love as in politics,” writes Ives, “one partner must rule.” Perhaps. But with this production, Turvin, Giberson, Wirth, and Twilight Theater Company are all winners.
You can catch Venus in Fur at Twilight Theater Company August 3rd - 5th and 9th - 12th. Please note this production carries an adult content warning. Tickets at https://www.twilighttheatercompany.org/