Saturday, May 18, 2019

“Venus In Fur” Finds A Home At OnStage


Call it whimsical, kinky, funny, delicious, sensual, mysterious and spooky, off the wall or misogynistic; award winning playwright David Ives is no stranger to San Diego audiences having just seen a fun packed production of “All In The Timing” at North Coast Rep. Several of our local theatre companies have produced that along with “Time Flies”, “The Liar”, “School for Lies”. Every so often “Timing” shows up on some or other season. "Venus In Fur" is his as well.

“Venus” is rarely produced. For OnStage Playhouse, replacing its original fluffy “Pump Boys and Dinettes”, it’s a step into the unknown for unsuspecting audiences. I might offer that for OnStage playgoers, although the last award winning production “Frankie And Johnny And the Clair de Lune” with Teri Brown and Charles Peters was also out of the box, might just be a braver adventure.  

Sandra Ruiz as Vanda
I do recommend a little background reading (not too much to spoil the fun). Current managing director James Darvas has nailed the characters’ to a T with style and aplomb.
His top notch cast of two, the lovely and seductive Sandra Ruiz as Wanda/Vanda and the flummoxed casting director and author of a script he wants to mount, Thomas -Tom Steward pull you in from the outset and like it or not, you find yourself on both sides of their kooky and very erotic relationship.

It might appear that the playwright may have a thing about time, but “Venus” is a different coat of fur. It’s quoted as being “90 minutes of good kinky fun”; publicity words not mine. That said I must concur. 

The one act / 90 plus minute play unfolds in a run down rented space where Thomas is on the phone speaking with his fiancée Stacey about wrapping up the auditions for his upcoming piece.

He’s lamenting the fact that none of the women that auditioned for the part of Vanda, a 24 year old sexy, fleshy woman with smarts, classical training and a brain who can pronounce the word ‘degradation’ without a tutor has bothered to show up. In other words he’s convinced that she doesn’t even exist. 

But wait! A crash of thunder (Kelsie Morris) brings Sandra Ruiz’ Vanda/Wanda character stumbling in to the audition room. She is out of breath and carrying a shoulder tote almost as big as she.  She swears like a sailor, cursing because she might be out of luck for the auditioning as the character of Vanda in Thomas’ adaptation of the 1870 play “Anatomy of Shadows”. “Am I too late? Am I too late?”

While he tries to convince her that everyone’s already left over ‘a half hour ago’, she takes off her raincoat and reveals herself to be wearing a short (read mini/mini) black leather skirt, silver studded dog collar and studded patent leather bustier (Lisa Burgess). “I mean it’s basically S&M, right?

The play?” The play in question is an adaptation the German sadomasochistic novella written in 1870, called “Venus in Fur”, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch: Mr. S&M himself.

Thomas soon loses the argument that she should leave and come back the next day because before he knows it she has a period dress that she had in her carry on bag out and on. She straightens the wrinkles out of her dress and voilà!

Tom Steward and Sandra Ruiz
He marvels that she can transform herself from a kinky looking street hooker into 19th century proper woman of class. He’s left with no alternative than to read with her. She changes the lighting from florescence to soft colored reds (Santiago Vengas) and the let the games begin.

The fire smolders; the power play begins. From the get go the two characters playing both Thomas and Vanda and especially when Vanda is playing the goddess Venus to Thomas’ Kushemski and maybe even Thomas himself, the battle of the sexes, the sexual fantasies and the suggestive games between the two are as revealing as are the characters themselves. 

As the play within the play, the erotic little dance within the dance unfolds, the temperature within sizzles finally leading up to a struggle no one can foresee.  (No spoilers)  

At times you will see Thomas the aggressor and other times Vanda will do the leading. Traditional roles are reversed and oft times, during the reading, she steps outside her role and takes over in giving him direction. In some instances she takes control and she becomes the domineering dominatrix. Her journey becomes our journey.

Thus the play goes back and fourth with no one (unless you’ve seen it before) the wiser as to the outcome. Try not to outdo yourselves guessing just enjoy the magic.

As mentioned above without strong actors playing opposite each other and sans chemistry established between the two, “Venus in Fur” might fall flat on its furry face. Given that the two actors in this production are so compatible, so into each other that the chemistry literally charges, especially when Vanda goes nose to nose, chin to chin, body to body  with Thomas is a tribute to both. This production hums or should I say steams along.

Why and how Vanda happened on the scene this night, how she happened to be so prepared (she knew the script by heart) that she had a bag filled with period costumes and that she knew more about Thomas than he cared to reveal will remain a mystery.
Sandra Ruiz and Tom Steward
We do know though, that Sandra Ruiz (“The Madres”, “Time of the Butterflies”, “Enron”) is an enchanting and alluring actress turned seductress who can transform herself from a savvy street fighter into the dignified Vanda von Danayev tempting her prey or adverasry at the turn of a dime. We see her pole dance, flex her sexuality and force herself into a frenzy when needed.  

She can memorize an entire script that she supposedly just got her hands on and glanced at on the subway ride to the audition.  Sex exudes from her every pore, look and stance. Her performance is charming, effortless and intense.

We also know that Tom Steward can take it on the chin in his role as Thomas the playwright and frustrated director of his first play. We know also that even though he, Thomas, is engaged and has a fiancé who manages to call him at the most inopportune times, and that he is more than susceptible to the wiles of the sexy Vanda than he would care to admit and that he would love to bed Vanda.

She has him completely seduced and in her power. We even get the picture that in his role-playing with Vanda as they change genders just to mix it up, he is much more aggressive as a woman than he is as a man. Put that in your drink and mix it.

Technical support as pointed out earlier also makes this nontraditional piece to work on the long stage in Chula Vista with the creative genes of set designer Duane McGregor. It is converted into a theatre surrounded by all kinds of throw away theatre left overs with a small round lounge on the stage and a pole in the center supposedly used in the ‘old days’ for heat conduction.

A small desk with scattered papers, a lamp find themselves at one of the long stage, and on the brick wall a schedule for auditions and across the room a table with coffee, and stairs with a door out to the street.  

Lisa Burgess’ costumes are to be complimented on her choice of clothes that range from kinky modern to traditional 19th century. Kelsie Morris’ sound design can scare the bejeesus with the crackling thunder and Santiago Venegas’ lighting creates the atmosphere.

My first reaction after reading the Playbill and seeing the first time was that I don’t do kink. Well, along with the kink are some very funny takes on gender switching and dominance, mind over matter challenges and just plain good theatre. Tho’ seldom produced, this is my second go-a round. You  ight feel that way after seeing it once. Do see for yourself. It’s worth a try.


See you at the theatre.


Dates: Through June 15th
Organization: OnStage Playhouse
Phone: 619-422-7787
Production Type: Comedy/Fantasy
Where: 291 Third Ave., Chula Vista, CA 91910
Ticket Prices: $22.00
Web: onstageplayhouse.org
Photo: OnStage Playhouse

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