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Thursday, September 12, 2013

'Venus in Fur' goes under cover with kinky classic

IM YOUR VENUS: Adam Fristoe and Veronika Duerr in Venus in Fur
  • BreeAnne Clowdus
  • I'M YOUR VENUS: Adam Fristoe and Veronika Duerr in 'Venus in Fur'
Leave it to witty playwright David Ives to come up with a comedic solution to a dramatic problem - which may also qualify as a sexual problem.

The reliably inventive and amusing writer of All in the Timing struggled to craft a compelling theatrical adaptation of Venus in Fur, an 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The book's portrayal of erotically-charged submission and dominance led to the coining of the term "masochism" to the chagrin of its author. Ives' attempts at conventional adaptation proved lifeless until he came up with a meta-theatrical, modern-day take on the material, which receives a compelling, at times hilarious production at Actor's Express.

Comparable to a Charlie Kaufman script, Venus in Fur presents a playwright and director named Thomas Novachek (Adam Fristoe) who has scripted his own take on Sacher-Masoch and seeks to find the perfect actress for the role of Vanda, a Polish aristocrat turned dominatrix. One dark and stormy night finds Thomas at the end of a day of failed auditions, and he's about to go meet his fiancé when in barges a frazzled young actress (Veronika Duerr) who claims to be perfect for the part since she's also named "Vanda."

This Vanda, however, comes across as a perfect ignoramus who assumes that the production is basically porn, based on the source's kinky reputation. "I'm usually demure and shit," Vanda says, having removed her raincoat to reveal a sexy outfit underneath. Loud and obnoxious, she condescends to Thomas's bookish intellectualism and begs him to let her audition. The playwright reluctantly allows her to read, and is shocked when Vanda nails the part.

As Thomas and Vanda delve into the text, Ives contrasts the control dynamics of director and actress with the complex relationship between the fictional Vanda and her obsessed would-be lover Severin. Thomas begins acting the role of Severin himself, at the actress's urging, allowing the action to intercut between the 19th century characters and the 21st century theater people commenting on them, at times shifting back and forth with dizzying speed. At times, Venus in Fur feels like the snappiest possible piece of literary deconstruction as the characters engage with an antiquated but influential text and argue over contemporary notions of sexism and gender roles.

In addition, the power relationship in the seedy audition space shifts as well as Vanda reveals surprising insights into the material, and we wonder if her ditzy demeanor might itself be an act. Ives's gimmick might seem too clever by half, but it works superbly in the Actor's Express production directed by David Crowe. At first, Fristoe sharply delineates between his performance as Thomas and as Thomas "doing" Severin, but the differences between the roles grows increasingly blurry as Vanda questions his fascination with such sexually loaded material.

That Duerr mines the material for enormous laughs is no surprise, since she's proved herself to be one of Atlanta's finest comedic actresses. She also brings out the more deeply emotional aspects of the role (or roles), with ambiguous moments that carry dramatic weight. The play shows a remarkable ability to shift gears between humor and heavyweight feelings, without letting its sexy moments serves as a distraction.

For a two-actor show, Venus in Fur feels a little long. The opening night performance lasted until nearly 10 o'clock without intermission, and in the last half hour in particular, the action seems forever on the verge of resolution, only to keep on going. (I kept finding myself thinking, "Okay, this must be the big finale... I guess not.") Nevertheless, Venus in Fur builds to a wallop of a final image, however, and it seems appropriate that a play about sexual dynamics should show such interest in delayed gratification.

Venus in Fur. Through October 6. 8 p.m. Wed.- Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Actor's Express, 887 W. Marietta St, Suite J-107 . $22-$45. 404-607-7469. http://www.actors-express.com/

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