REVIEW – Venus in Fur – San Jose Stage Company

San Jose Stage you’re such a wicked little tease, aren’t you? And, Venus in Fur, you’re a crafty little minx of a play. Where, oh where to begin with you?  Hell, let’s dive right in to the proverbial deep end, shall we? Say please. Like you mean it. Okay then…brace yourself.

This is a tricky play, not only from a content standpoint (on the surface alone we’re talking “hard hitting” exploration of gender power struggles and masochistic tendencies) but from an artistic and mechanical standpoint too. It’s a two person play, which alone makes it a serious exercise in acting, people. There’s no safe word , I mean safe net, when you have just 2 on stage.  Now, add in how to make an audition look and feel like an audition (which is a different feel than a play within a play) but the non-audition part also feel different, but still real. Then add in an element of ambiguity and fantasy, all while each line toggles delicately between spontaneous and tactical. You have to have actors act without acting, while acting and not acting and also acting. It took a bit of time to warm up, but our onstage pair got up to speed quickly. There’s a lot of switching back between what is “scripted text” and off the cuff remarks. These interruptions push and pull at the pacing, but the jarring and jolting was just another challenge that our dynamic duo seemed to have a firm grasp on. Keeping realistic, precise fluidity is really hard to maintain and to keep sincere and not too heightened. It’s a workout for the body, voice and mind. Our actors played well together is this regard.

It reminded me of tennis. Back and forth, focus when the rally is on, momentary pauses in play, then right back in the game, pacing yourself, your energy climaxing, the occasional loud and slightly erotic noises, reacting to the hits, trying NOT to react, you’re giving away control, you are taking it… there’s a lot going on here and you have to bring you’re A game to every second of this script in order to score. It’s REALLY difficult stuff folks, but our actors rise to the occasion, finding their groove early on, sustaining momentum with conviction admirably throughout.

As if that weren’t difficult enough, there’s also the additional challenge of pulling off all of these technical levels while wearing next to nothing and exhibiting exactly zero fucks about that fact. I don’t care what kind of a pro you are or what shape your body is in, lines, pacing, and staying in the moment is hard enough as it is; being ½ naked while doing it is not at all as easy as our actress, made it look.

Bonus points not only to our leading lady who paints the stage with 100% natural confidence, but also to the genius  in charge of making sure not even a hint of wardrobe malfunction presented itself. Costuming plays an essential part in this production, but can NOT provide a distraction when not absolutely intended to. Whether perfectly sized and tailored, taped, glued or leprechaun magic was used, it was a bit of  a marvel (all the girls are going to want those secrets!) and it helped to keep the focus where it needed to be, which for the most part, really is the thick, rich, sharp dialogue. The last thing we want in this play is to be pulled out by feelings of nervousness or embarrassment for either actor and so it was nice that the costuming was able to effectively enhance the action and didn’t restrict natural movement or pull focus unnecessarily.

Aside from this creative tennis match happening, there’s a different game going on here too, one that reminds me of (and forgive the over-share) the phenomenon which occurs when I come into contact with an extremely physically attractive man. That moment where the well-educated, mature and perhaps not entirely unwitty me, goes up against biological kryptonite and is reduced to moronic giggling, uncontrollable head tilting, and general blathering. This stupidity is in no way, shape or form an intentional flirtation. Somehow my brain just unconsciously authorizes a complete shutdown, reassigning common sense and enlisting it to play the part of a complete idiot instead.  No matter how much I object and feel this behavior is wrong or misrepresentative of true self, it’s just fact that I’m losing this battle every damn time.  Similarly, this play and production doesn’t let you really judge the practices here. Provocative without being scandalous, the masochism and sensuality of the play doesn’t present itself as taboo, but rather just circumstance. It doesn’t aim to be shocking for shock’s sake nor is it too sterile or clinical in presentation. It somehow downplays the content, despite constantly referencing and demonstrating both literal and metaphorical masochism. But, as much as you WANT to participate in the thinking part of what is being said or done, Venus in Fur doesn’t give you any opportunity or say in the matter.  Instead it takes complete control of you, preemptively making every possible argument or observation for you and presenting it to you skillfully in a taut little package of repartee. Rather than let you think, it’s more about just showing you the beauty and horror of how manipulation, power, and sex all just work kind of on their own. How easy and formulaic it is, because hello…biology, but also how maddening it can be, how humorous, exciting, natural, contradictory, frustrating and yes confusing. I think what I enjoyed most about this play is how you quickly figure out if you have any chance of following along, you can’t form opinions. There’s not time for your mind to wander during the play, you have to, pardon the phrasing, take it all in at once. Simultaneously, you can try to force something, but sometimes it’s going to play out differently than you likely intend.

Technically we’ve got a nice wide open set, realistic, functional and appropriately dramatic lighting and sound design. It comes together well directionally too.  There’s an appropriate amount of tension and volume and silence and humor all serving the script dutifully. Clearly the team has slaved over this one and it shows. This is a show that will likely get better and better as the run goes on, as nuances and discoveries can be further fleshed out with each performance. There’s just SO much here in and between the lines and it’s all wide open to interpretation.

I will say, it’s all a bit blurred as to what exactly happens. It’s linear and also kind of not, which is a weird bit of space to be in. It’s a game of what layer of reality exactly are we on at any given moment? Is this a face value statement, devil’s advocate, a joke, a deliberate deception, or just total insanity? It’s all in there and it keeps you on your toes for sure. My advice, best to submit to the fact you may not necessarily have it all solved, even by the end, and that’s okay. Just say thank you.

I think there’s a lot of good conversation to come after this piece concludes and its copious challenges are respectably met in many places. A robust  4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for an intriguing, well-performed, intellectual dance that will certainly stir a lot of thoughts (and perhaps feelings) during the tight and fast 90 minute affair. Venus in Fur plays through March 1st at the San Jose Stage in Downtown San Jose.

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