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Life Is … a (Mind-Bendingly Intellectual and Kinky) Audition In Ives’s Erotic, Comic Drama, “Venus in Fur,” at Theatre Intime

WHO’S AUDITIONING WHOM?: Thomas (Dan Ames), director of the play-within-the-play, helps his intriguing auditioner Vanda (Evelyn Giovine) to fasten her dress in Theatre Intime’s production of David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 5.

WHO’S AUDITIONING WHOM?: Thomas (Dan Ames), director of the play-within-the-play, helps his intriguing auditioner Vanda (Evelyn Giovine) to fasten her dress in Theatre Intime’s production of David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 5.

Bursting into the audition room, she looks like every director’s worst nightmare: crude, ditzy, desperate, needy, self-pitying, late, and completely wrong for the classy role. She seems like a composite of all the auditioners that Thomas, the earnest, cerebral director, has been complaining about in his phone conversation with his fiancée in the opening minutes of Venus in Fur, David Ives’s 2010 tour de force of wit and eroticism currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus 

Thomas needs a female lead for “Venus in Fur,” his adaptation of the classic sadomasochistic 1870 novella by the Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name has given us the word “masochism” — but at this point Thomas is packing up to go home.

Thomas does not go home. The would-be actress, strangely and conveniently named Vanda, the name of the female character in the play, persuades Thomas, through force of will and multiple manipulations, to let her read the first three pages of the script with him.

The ensuing 90 minutes becomes a psycho-sexual battle, with the erotic tensions of the two characters in Thomas’ play blurring with the tensions between the director and this increasingly beguiling actress in the ongoing audition. He is auditioning her, but she turns out to have a surprisingly thorough knowledge and understanding of the script and its passionate characters, not to mention a huge bag full of necessary costumes and props — and, increasingly and mysteriously as the play progresses and the balance of power swings back and forth, she also seems to be auditioning and directing him — for what purposes, remains to be seen.

Mr. Ives, a New York playwright perhaps best known for his brilliant collection of one-acts comprising the off-Broadway hit All in the Timing (1993), is a master of wit, of word play and dramatic twists and turns, of comic timing, and of the intellectual acrobatics that blur the lines between theater and life. He’s at the top of his game in Venus in Fur (2010), a Broadway hit and Tony Award nominee for best play. The dialogue is sharp, realistic, and funny. The two characters are thoroughly engaging, as they struggle for dominance and power, and their relationship develops. The tension rises and the plot moves swiftly towards its climax.

Evelyn Giovine as Vanda is magnificent. The challenging role requires so many shifts, subtle and unsubtle — from the desperate, classless auditioner to the sophisticated woman who knows what she wants, from scrappy, foul-mouthed 21st century New Yorker into her sophisticated character role as Vanda von Dunayev and her constant maneuvers and manipulations, erotic and otherwise, as she contends with Thomas. Whether in leather skirt, black lingerie and dominatrix black boots, or elegant white 19th century gown, Ms. Giovine, a Princeton University sophomore, is captivating — in more than one sense of the word, funny and sometimes charmingly, sometimes frighteningly, believable, as she progresses from chatty, gum-chewing, wanna-be actress chick to no less than an evocation of the mighty love goddess Aphrodite (Venus) or even the vengeful god Dionysus with his Bacchae bent on cruel revenge against any mortal who denies his dark powers.

Ives’ dialogue includes much dispute between Thomas and Vanda about the quality of the play she is auditioning for and whether it is pornography or great literature. Venus in Fur, in the hands of a lesser playwright or a less talented female lead, could easily have misfired or descended to tasteless, pornographic titillation. This production, however, under the intelligent, capable direction of Princeton University junior Julia Hammer, seldom lets down the erotic tension, but remains tasteful and entertaining throughout.

Princeton graduate student Dan Ames as Thomas, though overshadowed at times by the powerful, charismatic Ms. Giovine, is a worthy counterpart and a credible young director, finding himself in a power struggle with this Venus figure and caught between the erotic urgings of Vanda and the insistent phone calls of his fiancée. The sexual chemistry between Thomas and Vanda is palpable and potentially powerful, but needs to build as the performers settle into these demanding roles in the second weekend on stage.

Matt Seely’s bare-bones, rehearsal-room set effectively creates the stark world of director and auditioner, with Marissa Applegate’s lighting to help shift the mood when necessary and to give Vanda, who operates the fuse box light switches, yet another means of control over the proceedings. Annika Bennett’s costumes – Vanda’s and Thomas’, though they never stop “acting,” actually change back and forth from 1870 setting to real life attire several times during the course of the evening — are spot on, and vital to the depiction of these characters and particularly of Vanda’s increasing dominance.

The production does need, and with luck will see in its second weekend on stage, some clarification — in the line delivery by Mr. Ames and in articulate projection of Ms. Giovine’s European accent in the role of Dunayev — and quickening of the pace, which occasionally drags, at times diminishing, rather than building the erotic tension.

Thomas auditions Vanda. Vanda auditions Thomas, as the characters in Thomas’ play intertwine with the characters of the director Thomas and the actress Vanda. Intrigues surrounding the identity and psychology of these characters deepen, as the stakes rise and the roles — director-actress, Kushemski-Dunyaev, master-slave, man-woman — reverse again and again.

Venus in Fur is hard to beat for a combination of powerful drama and captivating psychosexual fun and games. With David Ives, Evvy Giovine, and the fine Intime company as the games masters/mistresses, the evening is a memorable one.

 

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