Friday, May 9, 2014

"Venus in Fur" at the Playhouse, "The Twentieth-Century Way" at Know

One must-see for now, one should’ve-seen that has closed

     David Ives’ Venus in Fur, directed by KJ Sanchez in a production that seems definitive to me, deals with levels of ‘acting’ and performance that are similar to Tom Jacobson’s The Twentieth-Century Way, directed intensely by Kimberly Faith Hickman.  The Playhouse has always rotated staff and guest directors for their productions and Know got smart under Eric Vosmeier’s recently concluded leadership by following a similar model.  Different directors bring
in a variety of visions and interpretations and are more likely to be passionate about specific scripts.  The director is key to pulling together the artistic vision of a production (the managing director or, for smaller theatres, the producing artistic director has to find the money) and a season will be stronger and less stale by changing up this position.

Sosko and Wohlrabe in Venus in Fur*
     Venus in Fur and The Twentieth-Century Way were first produced in 2010 and both start with auditions involving two characters.  However, the actors in both shows end up playing multiple characters and have to negotiate levels of performing and layers of illusion versus reality.  The Twentieth-Century Way took a historical subject about the enacting of sodomy laws in California, while Venus in Fur re-imagines Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel.  Andrew Hungerford provided an understated, period perfect set for Know, while Misha Kachman tightened the cavernous Marx into a much more intimate space through his set that retained a vast backdrop and his costumes that were casually jaw-dropping, especially in the final image.

McKeough and Rasmussen in The Twentieth Century Way
     Michael McKeogh as the younger actor Brown and Jens Rasmussen as the more seasoned performer Warren (The Twentieth Century Way) developed an almost farcically fast and explosive chemistry as they shuttled between being actors, who might have also been special police agents, as well as the men they busted for social vagrancy.  Their concentration was intense as they turned on a dime by suggesting a different character and setting with only a specific gesture.  They were terrific.  If Beckett had written Estragon and Vladimir as not only companions, but potential lovers, and if directors realized that Waiting for Godot should move at a lightning pace based upon improvising, rather than the stately pace reserved for resurrecting a classic, it would feel like Hickman’s production.  

     My only problem with Twentieth Century was that it took one step too far in its games of one up-man-ship by having the actors speak to each other as ‘themselves’ while revealing all during the final five minutes.  I didn’t believe it because they wore bathrobes for the curtain call, thereby underscoring that they were still acting in ‘character’ before the blackout.  By showing too much physically, the illusion versus reality theme was undercut.  The actors and director were fully committed, but the writing didn’t fully support them.

Changing Roles*
     PJ Sosko, cast as the writer-director, and Greta Wohlrabe, cast as the tardy actress hoping to tryout, sparked electricity before the first crack of thunder from the background storm during Venus in Fur.  Both possess powerful technique and the ability to switch from playing light to playing heavy/dark in an instant without losing theirs or the viewer’s focus.   Sosko was physically and emotionally sturdier than Hugh Dancy (the Broadway production), which rendered his degradation more complex, while Wohlrabe suggested a younger Nancy Opel (a wonderful New York actress, who’s close friends with author Ives) and sometimes Rachel Roberts and Jane Leeves, i.e. her presence is richly idiosyncratic.  This part made a star of Nina Arianda, and Wohlrabe feels like one here.  Her eyes and teeth glitter avidly and she seems capable of anything, a sexy and frightening quality.  The tone subtly changes throughout and I don’t want to reveal too much, except to suggest that the references to Euripides’ The Bacchae should not be ignored.
*Photos by Sandy Underwood

Venus in Fur runs through Saturday, May !7, 2014.
Future productions at Know Theatre can be found here:     

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