What happens when a real-life couple portray an emotionally complex, scintillating onstage romance? Audiences can find out this weekend with the opening of Balagula Theatre's latest production, Venus in Fur. The two-person play, written by David Ives in 2010, has won numerous awards, including a Tony for best actress.
Renowned local director Joe Ferrell has long wanted to direct Venus in Fur, but the rights to produce the show weren't available until this year. Once he got the green light to direct the show, Ferrell knew immediately whom to cast in the play's challenging lead roles: Kevin Hardesty and Rachel Rogers.
"They are both phenomenal actors," Ferrell says.
Both longtime veterans of regional stages, Hardesty and Rogers have been a couple for eight years.
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Hardesty plays Thomas, a director struggling to cast an actress in the staged adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the same author who inspired the word masochism).
Just as Thomas is lamenting that none of the actresses who auditioned are right for the role, Vanda, played by Rogers, walks in, and the duo experience an intense connection that leads them down a twisting road of seductive power plays.
Almost every review of the play mentions the word "kinky," but Ferrell says the show is about something much deeper: the power of intimate relationships to challenge and transform.
"To me the play is about relationships, and the shifting of power in those relationships," Hardesty says. "It's about the secrets we harbor and who we share them with. It is about intimacy in the truest sense. It's a play that presses the boundaries between reality and illusion."
Hardesty and Rogers have worked together in the past, but because they're the only cast members in Venus in Fur, they have the luxury of working on the play even when they're not in rehearsal. Sometimes, though, the intensity of the work merits a much-needed personal time-out from the play.
Both say that the inherent trust in their own relationship functioned as an important safety net as the play's characters sometimes push each other to "dangerous places."
"We know how to leave the work at the stage door, but use the time we naturally have together to further the work," Hardesty says.
"We are constantly running lines while making dinner or riding to rehearsal, sharing insights about moments in the play," he says. "We also have the ability to say, 'I need some time to decompress from rehearsal. I'm going to watch football in the bedroom while you read your British mystery novel,' or whatever."
Rogers says it's not just a sense of trust that makes Venus in Fur such a unique experience for them. It's also that they draw from a well of real feelings even as they pretend to be other people, which is not unlike the production's play-within-a-play premise.
On stage, Thomas and Vanda portray characters from a 19th-century erotic novel. In real life, there is an even deeper layer: a real-life couple playing a pretend couple playing another pretend couple. Somewhere in that mix of role-playing, the mysteries of the heart are being unraveled.
"Joe commented in one of our rehearsals, 'Do you realize you still blush every time you look at him?'" Rogers recalls of working with Hardesty. "And I do. Not because I'm shy or unsure of him, but because he heats up my heart to that degree."
"That's something that is absolutely wonderful to be able to bring truthfully to the relationship between Thomas and Vanda," Rogers says.
"Sure, they're locked in a power play here, but they're having the time of their lives in the middle of the battle," Rogers says. "They have a real affinity for each other. In many ways, they are made for each other, and they know it. They take great joy from one another, and we're not just acting that on stage."