David Ives’ “Venus in Fur” explores the power dynamics between men and women through the lens of theater, a motif where the give and take between a director and actor — regardless of gender — can border on S&M.
Boise Contemporary Theater opened its season last weekend with its production of this crisp 90-minute two-hander. Directed by artistic director Matthew Cameron Clark, it will take you for a thrill ride. There will be no dozing through this one.
At the end of a long day of casting for his adaptation of the 1870 novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — in whose honor the word "masochism" was coined — Thomas (Dwayne Blackaller) is frustrated at not finding the right actress for the role of Vanda, an aristocratic 19th century dominatrix who is the book’s central character. His creation is far beyond the ken of today’s young actresses he tells is fiancé over the phone.
A storm rages outside, thanks to Peter John Stills' riveting sound design that builds beautifully throughout. In comes a real Vanda (Annie Bulow), an actress bundled in chaos, lugging a large bag of accessories in high-heeled shoes. She is late for her appointment, she says, although she’s not on the list. Her name is really Wanda, she explains, but her parents pronounced it with a V, like the book’s character. That’s the first of several eerie coincidences that bring both mystery and menace to the proceedings.
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She convinces him to let her read for the part, and even to read with her. He’s not impressed at her attempts to capture the character. Dressed by costume designer Hannah Read Newbill, she wears a bustier, rubber skirt and a dog collar. Dog collar? Wrong period, Thomas says. This isn’t “S&M porn,” he tells her. Really?
Then she begins to reveal her layers as she pulls 19th century dresses and men’s cloaks out of her bag of tricks, all beautifully curated by Newbill.
The two actors are perfectly matched here.
Bulow is simply wonderful as Vanda — all of them. She turns her character on a dime between dippy actress, elegant Austrian dominatrix, sadistic bitch and vengeful goddess. She shows a deep understanding of the juxtaposition between the facets of Vanda’s character, and an impressive technique with dialects. She completely inhabits her character in each moment.
Blackaller’s Thomas is smug and controlling at first, but Blackaller brings a surprising openness and vulnerability to the role that allows him to transform as he gives his power over to Vanda, then struggles to take it back. So, who really wants to wear those thigh-high boots?
Set and lighting designer Rick Martin’s New York City rehearsal room is perfectly dingy and spare, with just a sumptuous period red velvet settee at its center. To set her mood, Vanda adjusts the lights in the room, and thanks to Martin, that redefines the space beautifully — allowing for two worlds to coexist, truly the magic of theater.
BOISE CONTEMPORARY THEATER'S 'VENUS IN FUR': 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays through Nov. 1; and 2 p.m. Oct. 18, 25 and Nov. 1, 854 Fulton St. $32 Fridays-Saturdays, $26 Wednesdays-Thursdays, $16 for matinees and student tickets for any show. Season tickets are also available. Buy tickets here.