Austin Playhouse at Highland Mall, 6001 Airport, 512/476-0084
Through Jan. 25
Running Time: 1 hr., 40 min.
You'd think a theatre director – make that a male theatre director – would know all there is to know about power positions between the sexes, given how he routinely wields authority over women actors: looking them over, judging their talent, ordering them about. But Thomas, who's laboring to cast a stage version of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs, is the one who gets schooled on domination and submission in David Ives' wickedly twisted and twisty two-hander. It may be that it's Thomas' first time helming a show – a playwright, he took the job only because he didn't trust anyone else to get this story like he does. Then again, there's something about Vanda, this actress who showed up hours after the auditions ended and who curiously shares the name of the haughty dominatrix she seeks to play. At first blush, she appears just another clueless, luckless, boundaryless young actress desperately chasing parts, but once she wheedles her way into a tryout, with Thomas reading the role of the willfully submissive Severin, Vanda comes to seem much more familiar with the story, Thomas' play, and Thomas, and more sophisticated and self-possessed. She's clearly able and willing to instruct him on this work and its psychosexual underpinnings, and he's entranced enough to let her.
Ives has a high old time here toying with identities, playing gender roles and sexual attitudes of the 19th and 21st centuries off one another via a theatrical setting that lets him slyly slide his characters into and out of Sacher-Mosoch's tale in ways that blur our sense of who's who and who wants what (and get in some droll digs at stage practices, as when Vanda chirps, "You don't have to tell me about sadomasochism. I'm in the theatre.") He aims to keep us, like Thomas, always a little off-balance but continually intrigued. In staging Austin Playhouse's production, Artistic Director Lara Toner captures that Ives-ian spirit of perverse fun, with Molly Karrasch at her most effervescently effusive, hilariously babbling on about acting, subways, pornishness, whatever, and Gray G. Haddock countering with amusingly dry rejoinders.
As the play goes on, however, this business of master and slave, pleasure in pain, what Vanda wants from Thomas and Thomas from Vanda – the stuff that makes this script a daring choice for the Playhouse – begins to, well, dominate, demanding more of the cast. Karrasch makes the quicksilver shifts between Vanda-actor and Vanda-character with the speed and facility of an Olympic skier on a downhill run, growing in command and control with every turn. Haddock, though, keeps a tight rein on Thomas, even as he kneels and accepts his mistress' dog collar. There's danger in his surrender to her, and when Thomas loses himself in this role play, we should see something titillating and scary as well as comical, some evidence of the passions that he insists join Vanda and Severin. "Nobody has emotions this size anymore," Thomas says. "Outsized emotions. Operatic emotions." So it seems here, leaving us a Venus that's entertaining, and safe.
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