Thomas rails at his cell phone. The first-time director just auditioned 35 women for his new play, Venus in Fur. None came anywhere near what he wants. In the terms of David Ives thought-provoking, erotic comedy of the same name, Thomas looks like he’s just had the exact opposite of sex.
Are there no “sexy-slash-articulate young women with some classical training and a particle of brain in their skulls,” he shouts at the phone. “Is that too much to ask?”
His play’s based on Venus in Furs, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s notorious 1870 novella about Severin’s S&M relationship with Wanda von Dunajew (which Ives changed to “Dunayev, for obvious reasons). Severin’s submissiveness defined, and eventually coined, the term “masochism.”
Thomas wants someone to play Wanda with overwhelming size. “Most women who are 24 these days sound like 6-year-olds on helium.”
He needs a goddess.
Lightning flashes. Not ominous — an electrical storm’s overhead — though the ones to come will be. Enter Vanda, trailing clouds of F-bombs. She’s late. She’s scattered. In a voice like a scratched CD, she announces she’s an ak-treece four hours late for her audition. She looks like the combined lowlights of Thomas’s first 35.
She also says, early on, “When you obtain your ideal, she may be crueler than you care for.”
Somehow Vanda has the complete script. Odd, since Thomas thought his was the only copy. And she produces costumes that fit the period — and them — to perfection. Plus, she’s committed the script to letter-perfect memory — and performs it with astonishing poise and power.
Hooked on Vanda, the eerie audition, and a fascination with Severin’s masochistic drives, Thomas plays along. What follows is, at the same time, a scorching Liz and Dick making “Rome in Tiber melt,” and Abbot and Costello doing not “Who’s on first?” but “Who’s in control?”
San Diegans may recognize David Ives from local performances of his All in the Timing and Time Flies. These are brief one-acts both funny and smart. In The Philadelphia, a guy’s trapped in a “Philadelphia” and must ask for the opposite of what he wants (one wonders what a “San Diego” might entail).
The San Diego Rep may have mirrored Thomas’s search for a young woman able to play dumb as mud, then leap tall buildings at a single bound. She must flip styles, from extreme contemporary to classical and back: the one requiring the elasticity of a gymnast, the other grave, from the neck up formality, having only words to vent her passions. And the gymnast? She must shimmy up a metal pole, like a balletic Marine, and do a routine worthy of Cirque du Soleil.
Enter Caroline Kinsolving. Oh my WORD! Who? Where’s she been? Check her bio! Can’t — it just repeats “very” and points to a website. But she’s performing as if to the character(s) born! From her first entrance, Kinsolving owns the stage, even when Vanda submits to Thomas’s direction or Dunayev to Severin’s. She’s smart, freely sexy, and, even more to the point, relentlessly spontaneous.
She flits from empyrean to bumpkin and to comedian (as when she says, “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism. I’m in the theater”). Kinsolving steals the show, thanks in large measure to Jeffrey Meek’s generous performance as Thomas. He leads, he follows, and he fuels her emotional outbursts with pyrotechnics of his own. Ensemble casts are usually large: the Rep’s got a dynamite, two-hander ensemble. How dynamite? Ives originally wrote the play for four actors.
The duo performs in-the-round, an ingenious choice by co-directors Kim Rubenstein and Sam Woodhouse, on Robin Sanford Roberts’s low, spare platform, with a collage of floor designs from previous shows (the pole’s a leftover when the building was a sweatshop). They don Jennifer Brawn Gittings’s splendid costumes, which range from a dog collar and black lingerie to a crochet-like, 19th-century gown from world’s beyond. Lonnie Rafael Alacraz’s lighting ranges from subtle to appropriately stagey. And George Ye’s background music and sounds are tops, though in my mind I kept wanting to hear Frankie Avalon singing “Hey, Venus.”
The staging’s so expert — so choreographed — you could follow the story with ears closed, just by watching the abrupt shifts of status levels: now he’s in charge, now she. But Ives has serious points to make as well.
As Meek deftly reveals, Thomas has major control issues. Whether he’s dominating or submitting, he’s found a way to remain in charge. “We’re all easily explicable,” he has Severin boast, “What we’re not is...easily extricable.” He’s more prophetic than he knows. And as long as he’s defining the terms, he’s okay. But when Vanda enters, as boisterous as a young Mama Rose in Mame, Thomas gets the ideal he wished for — and should have been more careful in the defining.
- Venus in Fur, by David Ives
- San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
- Codirected by Kim Rubenstein and Sam Woodhouse; cast: Jeffrey Meek, Caroline Kinsolving; scenic design, Robin Sanford Roberts; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; sound, George Ye
- Playing through December 8; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000