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29 Oct 2017

Casting Chaos: CV Rep's Fantastic 'Venus in Fur,' With Its Sexual Power Dynamics, Could Not Be More Timely

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Patrick Zeller and Angela Sauer in CV Rep's Venus in Fur. Patrick Zeller and Angela Sauer in CV Rep's Venus in Fur. Jim Cox Photography

The Coachella Valley Repertory Company has opened its new season with Venus in Fur. It’s a two-person, one-act show with no intermission—and it will knock your socks off.

It opened off-Broadway in 2010 and moved to Broadway in 2011; it was nominated for two 2012 Tony Awards, including Best Play. It’s currently running in the West End of London; Berlin; and … Rancho Mirage!

Director Ron Celona declared that the timing could not be more perfect for this play, due to the recent sexual-harassment scandals. It is set “today” (the cell-phone styles instantly reveal the era), and the show is about an actress auditioning for an unusual play set in 1870. She is facing a male playwright … a situation that puts us on edge right from the start, fearing the possibility of some sort of ghastly Harvey Weinstein-ian casting-couch calamity. A thunderstorm rages overhead, adding to the tension. The playwright is exhausted and disgusted after a fruitless day of tryouts, and the actress is late for her reading, soaked from the rain and furious. What could possibly go wrong?

Venus in Furs playwright David Ives, a Yale grad living in New York, has crafted an extraordinary work with this play. He’s most famous for his one-act plays, and garnered awards and honors for many of them. He has also created full-length plays, plus adaptations of both musicals and 17th- and 18th-century French plays. Here, multilayered and mercurial changes keep us off balance throughout, as we learn the playwright’s play is about the infamous 19th-century Austrian, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whom we have to thank for—you guessed it—masochism.

They say that the second you meet another person, there is a huge amount of psychic information exchanged about which person will control what in the impending relationship. Through this play-within-a-play, we deal with domination, submission, power plays, struggles, acceptance and rebellion. We see lies come to light. We see roles reversed. Sometimes, we don’t know what we’re seeing.

The actress, Vanda, is played by Angela Sauer, whose bouncy auburn hair sets off a beautiful face that shifts endlessly with her astonishing variety of emotions. You can’t take your eyes off her … not just because of the garters and lacy lingerie and black stockings and high heels, but because of her rapid switches from one personality to another. She snaps in and out of character: now a cranky actress and next a demanding director and then a radiant goddess Aphrodite and now a haughty countess and suddenly a smoldering dominatrix. Her vocal talents will surprise you—she gives each of her roles a special voice, with pitch, volume, speed, placement and even regional accents changing.

In contrast, Patrick Zeller—perfectly cast as the tightly wound playwright Thomas—internalizes and suppresses much of his emotions, though he never fails to let us know what he is thinking and feeling. He’s a thinking actor, whose subtleties provide the perfect foil for the high-energy and colorful Vanda. He morphs through his different roles, managing to be equally believable in each one. The abrupt switches of power between the characters catch us off guard every time, but Zeller rides every wave with ease. He is pitch-perfect in every complex part that he plays.

Ron Celona, also CV Rep’s founding artistic director, modestly credits the actors rather than his own directing skills for the success of this play. “They are smart and talented,” he said. “And sexy!” His steady directorial hand is evident, nonetheless, in the exquisite visual balance he maintains on this one-set stage. But it is the tension between the actors that is the most impressive part of this play. The undeniable chemistry between them increases unbearably as Celona gradually tightens the screws, making it impossible for us to guess what lies ahead. No director could have done more with the atmosphere … and when a completely unexpected plot twist occurs, we are suckered in helplessly. We know we will never be safe watching this play.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is simply designed, offering an ideal backdrop for the crackling energy onstage. He uses a palette of grays to contrast with the lightning and thunder storm viewed through the high windows, which echoes the electricity between the two characters. The set screams “crummy old lower East Side New York.” An innocent daybed sits center stage, making us nervous with its unspoken possibilities.

Moira Wilkie Whitaker gets credit for that lightning and thunder, along with Randy Hansen, the sound designer. Not an easy assignment! Add rain, and some finely timed effects, and you’ll see they had their work cut out for them.

Julie Oken’s costume design deserves a special mention, not the least of which was finding that bustier and those really high stiletto-heeled boots for Vanda to waltz around in … and those little S&M touches. Linda Shaeps’ hair and makeup design is, as usual, lovely, but what is especially astonishing is how Vanda’s makeup stayed on with everything she went through in this show. HOW? Audiences want to know, Miss Linda!

This is not a play for the faint of heart. It poses a lot of relationship questions and looks at social issues from both sides, causing us to examine our own deep-seated thoughts and beliefs. It brings us face to face with inequalities and prejudices and stuck ideas that still exist today. It peers beneath our surfaces to find what lies hidden far beneath. It is fascinating and confusing and a little scary, and there isn’t one dull moment in the entire show.

So gather your courage, and go see Venus in Fur. Besides, how often do you get to see a girl in garters?

Venus in Fur is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 19, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the show runs just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. There is no show on Tuesday, Oct. 31. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

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