Spoleto 2013 » Theater

Threshold Repertory Theatre stages a masochistic masterpiece

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S&M is a fairly salient topic these days, flirting with the mainstream via the 50 Shades of Grey series. Venus in Fur ruminates on the topic without fetishizing it, casually raising questions about the dynamic between authority and submission and how both are yielded differently by each of the sexes.

Threshold Repertory Theatre's staging was simple, taking place on a blacked-out stage with few props other than a writing desk and white divan. The scene opens on a similarly sparse playhouse, a playwright pacing the floor and angrily explaining to his fiancée on his cell phone why he cannot find the proper actress to portray his Vanda. It's these modern women, you see, too stupid, too young, no passion, no grit. As if daring the universe to challenge him with a proper muse, he continues belittling the collective actresses he's seen that day, until a knock at the door delivers one last thespian. Then Katie Holland stepped onstage, and we hoped she'd never step off, delivering a performance so devilishly good that we found our minds wandering to where this young lady may one day end up. As the performance wore on, it clearly became her show, as she mastered the part of the loud, excitable Vanda Jordan, an actress just looking for a chance.

The playwright reluctantly agrees to read with her, doing his best to explain the play that he's adapted from an old German tome relating to masochism. The high-strung Vanda transforms herself into the character, a forward thinking lady of the 1870s, so deftly that the playwright is disarmed. Subtle similarities arise between the main action and that of the play within a play, a tale of submission and masochism between a well-born gentleman and a polite lady in 1870 that is slowly recreating itself between the two people in this modern-day theater. The playwright, having written the words of his male character yet never speaking them aloud, is slowly seduced by his work and Vanda's performance of it, losing his director's authority to Vanda's incessant questions and ill-timed comments about her preferred staging location and costuming ideas. As the pair slips further into the characters, Vanda takes the reins, instructing Thomas to punch up crucial lines of the script and breaking the scene when she feels he needs further instruction. Their reading becomes a collaborative effort, with Vanda giving Thomas the female insight that his protagonist was clearly lacking.

The night turns strange, however, as the lines blur between the reading of the script and the realities of a hard-up actress trying to land a part. Holland's Vanda gives us the sense that she's been on the casting couch before, having to submit to a director in order to get a job. She turns the tables on Thomas, played by Laurens Wilson, barking out orders that extend beyond their reading and creep into Thomas' personal life.

The play builds up to a crucial will they or won't they crux, and although we won't ruin it for you, one of the payoffs of the performance was watching older patrons jump to their feet to cheer the performance and Wilson and Holland's efforts.

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