When director J. Daniel Herring told me in an interview prior to the opening of “Venus in Fur” that he was staging the play as if the actual Cal Arts Severance Theatre were transported to New York, I wasn’t sure what he meant.
Now I get it.
Herring’s simple but highly effective staging makes an ordinary theater wall – whose generic features include heavy-duty exit doors, a drinking fountain and a big fuse box – the backdrop for this exemplary production from the Live Theatre Co. At times while sitting in the audience I looked across to the mirrors lining that opposite wall, catching both my reflection and that of the actors, and I felt as if I were lurking in an actual New York rehearsal studio.
That feeling of total immersion in David Ives’ smart and sophisticated script is helped by the scrappy scenic design, of course, but what really makes it work is the acting and direction. Brooke Aiello and Terry Lewis deliver striking performances in this funny, tense and riveting “play within a play” about a theater audition gone awry.
Aiello plays Vanda Jordan, an actress who bluffs her way into an audition for a play based on the 1870 novel “Venus in Fur.” (Her first name, coincidentally, is the same as the role she wants.) The play’s director and writer, Thomas Novachek (Lewis), is fascinated with the novel, whose author, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, inspired the word masochism.
Vanda is impossibly late, but on this evening she comes prepared, with a big goodie bag of costumes and props, along with a mysteriously obtained copy of the unpublished script. Using sheer bluster, she convinces the reluctant Thomas to stay for a few minutes longer and read through the first scene with her.
Periodic booms of thunder and evocative shifts in mood create the feeling of a room that increasingly seems far away from the rest of the world even as it’s in the middle of a crowded city.
What follows is a teeter-totter of an emotional and psychological journey as the two dive into the steamy script, which is peppered with sadomasochistic themes. She plays an aristocrat who agrees to sexually dominate a man after he tells her he craves a submissive role. Occasionally Vanda and Thomas break away from the reading to square off and regroup.
Herring keeps the show finely off-balance, with neither actor getting too much of an upper-hand on the other, while at the same time allowing a dark undercurrent of menace to pool and spread. He’s helped by Liz Waldman’s lighting and sound design, which with periodic booms of thunder and evocative shifts in mood helps create the feeling of a room that increasingly seems far away from the rest of the world even as it’s in the middle of a crowded city.
Aiello and Lewis, two of the Fresno theater community’s most accomplished actors, do not disappoint in this show. (And my expectations were pretty high, especially considering that I watched a very good production in Visalia in June with a different cast.) Both are masters of using their bodies – their physicality – to convey character.
Aiello, who also designed the costumes, slips in a flash from dippy-sassy modern woman to cool, aristocratic 19th Century connoisseur of whips. Often scantily clad in tight and revealing scraps of black leather and fabric, she uses bare flesh as a way to slice through a room as if she owns it. Yet there is a demure quality to her as well, a sort of aw-shucks, be-my-Valentine tenderness, that can both captivate and cudgel.
Lewis’ transitions are less showy, as befitting the demands of the script, but his shifts between arrogant playwright and titillated submissive partner are, in their way, just as mesmerizing as Aiello’s.
At one explosive revelatory moment, Lewis actually sent a chill down my spine. A real one. The kind where you wiggle your lower back against the chair to make it dissipate.
But that’s what happens when a production is so immediate and vibrant that you feel as if you’re in the same room with the actors. “Venus in Fur” takes both your mind and body to New York. It’s a trip to remember.
Venus in Fur
- 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15 and Friday, Oct. 16; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 17
- Cal Arts Academy Severance Theatre, 1401 N. Wishon Ave.
- Mature language and themes
- Tickets: $15. Thursday performance and Saturday matinee will offer limited “Bring Your Own Ticket Price” admission at the door.