Chances are, you don't know much about how actors audition for their roles, and why should you? It's a process invisible to most people and, to be frank, not particularly interesting if you set aside the well-documented horrors of casting-couch auditions. So, it's curious that two superb plays that currently trod the boards at local theaters are both built around auditions.
In one, "American Moor" at Karamu House through May 29, a Black actor explores associated torments as he tries out for the title role in "Othello." Don't miss it!
In the other, "Venus in Fur" by David Ives now at None Too Fragile theater, a young woman named Vanda is auditioning for the title role in an eponymous play-within-the-play that the director Thomas has written. That play is based on the 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name gave us the word "masochism."
Of course, masochism is an inescapable part of any audition process, since actors know they will likely have their high hopes dashed when they are rejected for a part. But in "Venus," Ives delves deeper into the steamy byways of domination and humiliation, as Thomas tries to convey how Vanda should perform the role of Venus, the cruel and dismissive young woman at the center of Sacher-Masoch's story and his play.
When Vanda arrives late and flustered, carrying a couple large bags and rattling off apologies with her Brooklyn accent, it seems she is the exact opposite of a Venus. Thomas is eager to be rid of her until she finally convinces him to let her read a small section of the script. While reading the part, she instantly transforms herself into a confident and slightly haughty young woman, speaking in an elegant, vaguely European accent. Meanwhile, Thomas reads the part of her plaything Severin, a grown man obsessed by the memory of his mean aunt, a countess who wore lush furs and who beat little Severin with a birch branch when he misbehaved.
When Vanda embodies that character, Thomas is transfixed. Vanda knows her lines cold and delivers them with smooth assurance while Thomas/Severin is reeled in like a helpless, hooked walleye. From that point on, the two switch seamlessly back and forth between their characters, Vanda reverting from Venus to her scattered, insecure self while Thomas tries to reassert his position as the controlling director, all the time clearly longing to be Severin and kneel at the feet of the goddess who has come to life, speaking the words he wrote.
There are more surprises in store as we learn about Vanda, how she came to be at this audition, what she has in her bags, and how she relates to the character that Thomas has created. Ives has cooked up a rich, amusing and erotic brew, and under the precise direction of Sean Derry the two actors amplify every kinky gasp and nervous giggle.
As Thomas, James Rankin brilliantly portrays a man who is full of macho posing until the dominatrix of his and Sacher-Masoch's dreams appears in the flesh. Amid quick phone calls with his fiancé and desperate attempts to stay on task with the audition, Rankin is a man tangled in the web of his own deepest desire.
Not to be outdone, Mary Werntz is remarkable as Vanda. She effortlessly captures the adorable, ditzy quality of Vanda, as if she stepped out of a Nora Ephron rom-com flick. Then, just when you're laughing at her hijinks, she switches with brutal intent into the stiletto-heeled persona of Venus. Is she real, a fantasy, or a goddess? It's a bracing ride, and that's still not all Vanda has in store.
The play takes place in Derry's office-cum-bedroom set design that features a hulking, overstuffed divan that's a borderline sexual perversion all by itself. The play's frequent mood changes are augmented by the deft lighting design of Marcus Dana, while Stephen Ostertag's costumes (yes, including shiny thigh-high boots) keep Vanda large and in charge.
Some say that the most powerful sexual organ is the brain, and "Venus in Fur" takes us into a nether world where passion and imagination help create such forbidden sexual delights. No matter what turns your crank, this production has a lot to say about one byway of sexuality, and says it with high style.
Venus in Fur
Through May 28 at None Too Fragile Theatre at The Coach House, 732 W. Exchange St., Akron, nonetoofragile.com, 330-962-5547.