Powerful ‘Venus’ the rippingest of yarns


Mike O’Neil and Anna Stromberg star in ‘Venus in Fur’ at the Cape Fear Playhouse. Photo by William Fridrich, Courtesy of the Imaginary Theater Co.

Published: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 10:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 10:58 p.m.

It was Oscar Wilde who said that everything is about sex but sex, which is about power. In that case, then, David Ives’ two-person play “Venus in Fur,” in all of its S&M-fueled glory, is definitely about power.

Facts

Theater Review

What: “Venus in Fur,” by David Ives, presented by the Imaginary Theater Company
When: 8 p.m. June 6-8, 13-15, 20-22 and 3 p.m. June 9, 16 and 23
Where: Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St., Wilmington
Tickets: $23 and $25
Details: 367-5237 or www.BigDawgProductions.org

It’s a theme that’s deliciously and intelligently explored during a lively production at Cape Fear Playhouse by Imaginary Theatre Co., which is staging the Tony-winning play in Wilmington for the first time. Led by the incisive direction of Lee Lowrimore and featuring knockout performances by Mike O’Neil and, especially, Anna Stromberg, it’s a must-see.

Despite all of the skin on display – Stromberg is in various states of undress for the play’s intermission-free 90 minutes – and the large number of four-letter-words bandied about, “Venus in Fur” is ultimately an old-fashioned, erudite thriller with a shocking, final-scene twist that Alfred Hitchcock or Roald Dahl would’ve been proud of.

The story has hard-boiled playwright and director Thomas Novachek (O’Neil) auditioning actresses for his adaptation of “Venus in Fur,” the notorious 19th-century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name we get the word “masochism.” As the lights come up, Thomas is complaining, entertainingly, via cellphone about all of the incompetent actresses who’ve gone before him that day. He’s seeking the ultimate combo of beauty and brains, and anything less than that leaves him severely underwhelmed.

Just as Thomas is preparing to leave to meet his fiancee, he gets an unexpected guest. A very late-arriving actress – auditions ended 30 minutes prior – soaked from the rain, blows into the room, spewing expletives and begging for a chance to read. He tries to get rid of her but eventually gives in, setting in motion the play’s fascinating course of events.

Initially coming off as crass and common – “Usually I’m all demure and (expletive)” she says, apologizing for her costume of fishnets, bustier and platform high heels – the actress, whose name is Vanda Jordan, gradually displays her intelligence in several small but telling ways, culminating in a transfixing scene when she and Thomas begin to read his play together.

In some ways, the whole play hinges on Stromberg’s ability to seamlessly transform from guttersnipe to upper-class, 19th-century lady (and back again) in a fashion that’s believable. That she pulls it off in a way that’s not only believable but almost magical is a testament to her considerable talent. Over the course of the play, as the strange relationship between Thomas and Vanda (she shares a first name with the character she’s auditioning for) deepens, Stromberg is alternately jocular (and very funny), cajoling and outraged as her character argues with Thomas about what she deems the sexism of both his play and its source material.

We never quite know what she’s about – Is she just some psycho? A crafty stalker? A savant in disguise? – until the end, but Stromberg, and Ives, keep the possibilities dancing before us.

For his part, O’Neil’s big moment comes when Thomas takes on the part of Severin, the controlling yet submissive character who’s in thrall to Vanda, the beauty who will become his physical and emotional dominatrix. His monologue about how a childhood spanking twisted his psychology so that, for him, there is “nothing more sensual than pain, nothing more pleasurable than degradation,” is a beaut. In Thomas, O’Neil creates a smart but pompous man who’s capable of being direct but is a genius at being ambiguous when it serves him. He’s also not entirely honest, maybe even to himself. I’ve seen O’Neil do a lot of roles in Wilmington, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quite as honed-in and downright scary as he is at times here.

Together, it’s exciting to watch O’Neil and Stromberg explore the parallels between slave and master and actress and director – and the power struggles that occur between both – that Ives sets up. “Venus in Fur” is very much about the process of making theater, but it’s also about the balance of power that courses through our intimate relationships.

The only thing that doesn’t really work in this production is a scene in which Severin places, very slowly and deliberately, shiny boots of leather on Vanda’s feet. It should be breathlessly sensual, but comes off a little ho-hum.

In any event, the technical aspects of the production show much attention to detail. The audition room Thomas and Vanda inhabit is a pretty crappy one, but the set design by Lowrimore is wonderful. There’s a folding table strewn with head shots and resumes, a coffee-maker filled with questionable dark liquid and a divan that needs to be reupholstered. An old pipe has a left a rust-colored water stain on the wall (a nice touch by scene painter Phil Cumber) and a large, phallic pole looms over it all. A thunderstorm makes several appearances thanks to excellent sound design by O’Neil, doing double duty, and Jeff Loy does a fine job with the lights, especially during one pivotal scene when they’re brought down to moody, haunting effect.

As for that powerhouse of an ending, it’s quite a thrill. You’ll likely leave the theater with a smile on your face and Ives’ words dancing in your head. In that sense, it’s a truly happy ending.

John Staton: 343-2343

Twitter: @Statonator

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