Stage & Dance

Review: Balagula Theatre's 'Venus in Fur'

Rachel Lee Rogers as Vanda and Kevin Hardesty as Thomas in Balagula Theatre's production of David Ives' "Venus in Fur." Photo by Eugene Alexander Williams.
Rachel Lee Rogers as Vanda and Kevin Hardesty as Thomas in Balagula Theatre's production of David Ives' "Venus in Fur." Photo by Eugene Alexander Williams.

Almost every review I've read of David Ives' Venus in Fur uses the word kinky. And since the play is directly inspired by the 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name inspired the word masochism, kinky is an apt description.

But to paraphrase the play's protagonist (or is he an antagonist?) Thomas Novachek (Kevin Hardesty), the story is really about so much more. It's about power plays, yes, but it is also about exploring — sometimes gently, sometimes not — the mysterious layers of connection that bind the play's two characters.

The play opens with Novachek, a writer-director, wrapping up a fruitless day of auditions in modern-day New York. He is whining to his fiancée about the lack of attractive women with "a particle of brain in their skulls" who can convey the intricacies of Vanda von Dunayev, the lead character in Sacher-Masoch's novel, which Novachek has adapted for the stage.

Then, the real Vanda (Rachel Rogers) walks in.

Vanda Jordan, that is. A young actress desperate for a plum role and a longer résumé, the harried, scatterbrained Vanda arrives at the audition after everyone else has gone home and has to humorously coerce her way into an audition.

At first, it is easy to be fooled by Rogers' one-dimensional entrance as Vanda, the struggling actress — a ditzy klutz who is disorganized, late, full of excuses and yet still pushy. Vanda's first moments inspire annoyance and dismissal. I felt just like Novachek did, who curtly attempts to send Vanda packing with the pat phrases actors must repeatedly endure like, "We're just looking for someone different."

But that empty-headed act is just a tongue-in-cheek part of the act. Once Novachek relents and lets her begin to read for the role of the fictional Vanda, we see that the Vanda of the play's opening moments is also a character, just as intentionally drawn as the thick-accented, elegant siren she creates for the audition.

The play then swings into a mesmerizing tango of intrigue, with wills colliding in ways that reveal surprising insights into the characters' motivations and identities.

Rogers' character takes the lead in terms of throwing Novachek, and the audience, curve balls that keep you continually guessing about who she is and what her purpose is. One minute, she's a ditzy actress. The next minute, she's a quiet genius, and then you wonder if she might be a really clever stalker. And later, when she says she's a goddess, that suddenly seems fairly plausible. The innocent audition becomes something much more raw and weighty.

Rogers and Hardesty, a real-life couple, are a powerful duo. Their chemistry is palpable, but it is also their trust and timing that elevates their joint performance to create some of the evening's best moments. When Vanda changes the play's character's name to Thomas (the playwright's real name), for instance, notice Hardesty's unspoken response. While the play's big moments are played for their worth, it is the quieter moments, often when the lines between play-within-a-play characters and the play's characters are rapturously, possibly dangerously, enmeshed, that are the most potent and most telling.

Ives does not disclose who the real Vanda is, if that is even her name, or what her intentions are. But the fun for the audience is in continuing to guess. What is more important is that Ives gives Vanda the chance to symbolically audition for different identities via her seduction of Novachek.

"In our society, a woman's only power is through men. Her character is her lack of character," Vanda says in the play. "She's a blank, to be filled in by creatures who at heart despise her. I want to see what woman will be when she ceases to be men's slave, when she's his equal in education and his partner in work. When she becomes herself, an individual."