Playwright David Ives is an interesting study.
He’s not “young and promising”; he’s 60-plus and an established author. He doesn’t write in any particular style or genre. Ives has written plays with whimsical titles such as “Variations on the Death of Trotsky” and “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread” as well as children’s plays, earned praise for “All in the Timing” and has had success writing concert versions of Broadway blockbuster musicals – “My Fair Lady,” for one. Not particularly controversial, he did ruffle a few Buffalo feathers a couple of years ago when his play, “Polish Joke,” caused a ruckus between a local theater company and its landlord. Ives’ work is all over the theatrical map.
Perhaps his best-known play is “Venus in Fur,” an off-Broadway hit in 2010 and later uptown, again to acclaim. The play, taken from a 19th-century novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, has been called “erotic,” “kink-festooned,” “schizophrenic” and “psycho-sexual,” and those labels are apt. In the capable, intelligent hands of David Ives, it is also scary, menacing in some minutes, cruel and very funny, unlikely partners at work.
The plot: Thomas Novachek (Adriano Gatto), would-be playwright, has been auditioning actresses all day for this story of sexual domination, pain, bondage, fantasies and fetishes, and he’s had it. The applicants have been, it seems, poor of voice and carriage, lazy, shallow, talent-challenged … unacceptable, all. At the last minute, very late, thunder rolls, lightning flashes and in walks willowy, rain-coated Wanda Jordan (Candice Kogut), drenched, roaring against life, crass, profane. She sheds the coat, disclosing attire, in my limited knowledge of fashion, that can only be described as “Dominatrix Chic.” A bustier, boots, snaps and buttons, a dog collar, sexy mesh stockings, all black. This is obviously going to be a lively audition.
For the rest of “Venus in Fur” – 90 minutes, no intermission – Thomas and Wanda read the play’s script, role play, sometimes switching genders, she taking over, he astonished at her knowledge of her character’s lines – already memorized, in fact – and curious about Wanda’s backpack, loaded with an appropriate 1870 dress for her, exact jacket sizes for Thomas. “Who are you?” wonders Thomas. And, maybe more importantly, “What are you?” “Venus” audiences ask the same.
The two continue to spar. Wanda makes suggestions. The plot takes on elements of both of their lives. Wanda seems to know a lot about her host’s personal life, little pieces that weave into his story line, and “Venus” start to resemble Sacher-Masoch’s own life, with unusual relationships and marital contracts with slavery and bondage clauses. Thomas senses things are going terribly wrong, but he’s helpless, discovering secrets about himself, long denied. “Who are you?” he still asks. A psychopath? A stalker? An out-of-work actress who sees an opportunity? Intriguing.
“Venus in Fur” is repetitive in the late going, but there is a resolve of sorts. Happy ever after? Not likely. Sacher-Masoch, incidentally, inspired scientists of the 19th century to name this degradation and sexual pain “addiction,” as they called it, “masochism,” after him. A dubious legacy.
Director Robert Waterhouse seldom makes mistakes casting plays, and he has hit pay dirt here with bravura actors Gatto and Kogut. The former is superb in his truth search, distraught and lost when he finds it, his life turned upside down; Gatto is brilliant.
But it is the tigress, Kogut, who is mesmerizing, unpredictable, mood-changing in a blink, strange and dark, taut, dangerous and mercurial here, soft and purring there. Sacher-Masoch wrote of slaves, despots and companions. Watching Kogut on the prowl, you never know which one she is at the moment. What she knows and what she doesn’t is explored, and it is impossible not to watch Kogut, seeking her prey, garb aside. She is extraordinary.
Waterhouse offers exemplary direction; the company does fine technical work.
What: “Venus in Fur”
When: Through Oct. 5
Where: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 Johnson Park
Tickets: $15 to $25
Info: 853-1334 or newphoenixtheatre.org