Monday, February 17, 2014

Play: Masochism Tango

Venus in Fur by David Ives, Directed by Shana Cooper, Seattle Rep through March 9.,2014.

Is this a season of sex at the Rep? Bo-Nita echoes Lolita, A Great Wilderness deals with gay conversation therapy, and here we now have a cogent and brilliant deconstruction of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, complete with the requisite fetishware.

It's a good play, perhaps the best of the season so far. And I say it even though this one is not one of the local-born plays that the Rep has been delivering with such wondrous efficiency this year. And I say this despite the fact that it is a play about an playwright and an actor. Plays about writers and actors portraying actors are all so very, very meta and always send up a red warning flare for me, that the theatrical version of I-5 construction is coming up, and we're in for slow going.

But we're not - the action moves smoothly and the actors dance through their roles with verve and believability, right up to the end. Michael Tisdale is Thomas, the playwright looking for the perfect actress for the female lead in his adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's work. He's tightly-wound, frustrated, intellectual, and a bit of a control freak. Gillian Williams is Vanda, the aspiring actress that blows into the auditions late after everyone has gone home and seems to embody all the negatives of aspiring actors. Until she steps into the role she is playing and suddenly embodies the part, as if the vodun spirit of Sacher-Masoch's work is riding her.

OK, let me back up a moment for the original, pluralized fur-bearing Venus from Sacher-Masoch. Sacher-Masoch gave us the term masochism, much like the Marquis De Sade gave us sadism (are there any other isms that come from writers, or do we just get the sexual ones?). Sacher-Masoch uses the term "supersensual" to describe his protagonist, Severin, who is so struck by the aloof Wanda that he agrees to be her slave for a year, and goes through all manner of degradations, humiliations, and dominations (I'll cop to the fact that I have not read said text and I am leaning on Wikipedia for this summary, though the full text is here), until finally he gets it all out of his system. Indeed, Sacher-Masoch makes the case that one cannot be dominate or submissive with the other gender, but must be equal, to be companions. It is a hallmark moment in the original work, but we don't get to that point in the play, because the play is not really about that.

The thing about the original Venus (and about the version that Thomas in play adapts and presents to us the audience) is it from the masculine POV. That is, the text deals with Severin's compulsions that drives him forward, and lasts until the point that he declares himself "cured". He effectively tops from the bottom, while the heroine (named Wanda in the original) is almost a bystander. And that's one of the things that play DOES rattle about with - the question of who is really in charge here - Severin or Wanda? Thomas or Vanda? Director or Actor? Man or woman? Creator or muse?

It is heavy going in places, and could just collapse of its own weight. However it is spared from that fate by a script that is bright and engaging, and characters that are incredibly likable. We immediately connect with both the neurotic Thomas and the brassy, earthy Vanda. The humor is there, accessible, positive, and likable. The early bits have that casual attractiveness of an episode of the Big Bang Theory (nerds and hotties and the goofy attraction therein), which you need for later when you are deep in the forest and things are getting dark. This is all foundation work.

Michael Tisdale is good as Thomas, but Gillian Williams is amazing as Vanda, an incredibly demanding role that requires her to turn on a dime from struggling, desperate actress to cool countess and back to modern commentator. The audience is sometimes a half-step behind both of them as they barrel through the assumed roles and assumptions. And the end? I don't quite buy it, but the logical part of my brain has by this time been swept aside by the emotional. Supersensual, indeed.

Worthwhile and engaging. Yeah, worth seeing, and worth comparing against A Great Wilderness. Go have fun.

More later,