Life Imitates Art Imitates Life

Thomas is a playwright/director who is holding auditions for his adaptation of the erotic novel, Venus in Furs.  As he is about to leave for the night, Vanda bursts into his auditions, pleading for a chance to read for the show.  Impressed by her choice of costume, he auditions her and then the life of the play begins to bleed into the real world. . .or is it the other way around??  This is Venus in Fur by David Ives and playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

The best way to describe this play is that it’s a simple story wrapped up in a web of complexity.  On the surface, it seems to be a story of an audition that segues back and forth from the world of the play to the real world, but it is so much more than that as it touches on themes of lust, sensuality, domination, and control.  I actually rank it as one of the most brilliant scripts I’ve seen as Ives has intimate knowledge of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s controversial novel and expertly weaves it into his own tale.  By doing so, he not only pays homage to the original work, but manages to give it a bit of a twist as well.

Guest director Ablan Roblin has sculpted a show that is surely going to be one of the most talked about of the season.  His staging is sensational as his two performers constantly glide about the stage as the layers of the story are peeled off.  His direction is deep and nuanced which results in powerful performances from the actors who bring the audience deeper and deeper into this rabbit hole of a show.

Matthew Olsen makes an incredible debut at the Blue Barn with his rendition of Thomas.  He begins the show as the elitist writer/director lamenting that he hasn’t been able to find a suitable actress for his show, enumerating all the things the actresses lacked or did wrong.  Then he meets Vanda, his frustration palpable as she is the epitome of all the things he disdained in the other performers.  Once she shows him a proper costume, he gives her a chance and then Thomas’ transformation begins.

Olsen finds dynamic balances in the role of Thomas.  He is the snooty intellectual, but an underconfident actor.  He’s engaged, but doesn’t want to be tied down.  He wants to be in charge, but ends up being led by the nose.  What I found most engaging was that the stronger the character Thomas was playing became, the weaker Thomas became.  Or was Thomas always weak and his character now reveals the truth?  It’s a stimulating and intelligent performance that will leave you enthralled and guessing.

Sarah Carlson-Brown will have you hooked from the moment she enters the room with her Vonda.  Inappropriately dressed as a dominatrix (complete with impressive tattoos) due to a perceived misunderstanding of the story, Ms Carlson-Brown also finds those crucial balances that make her character so compelling.

Though she looks like a dominatrix, she is, in fact, the dominated to start.  She is under the influence of the director who tells her where to stand and how to read.  But as she effortlessly becomes the character she’s reading for, suddenly she’s in control and calling the shots and soon takes over the position of power.  Or was she really in control the whole time?  Ms Carlson-Brown finds wonderful mixtures of sass and submission; strength and begging; power and weakness until her final form thunders in at the finale.

Sound, lights, and set are more crucial to this story than any other I’ve seen.  And the combination of Steven Williams and William Kirby is truly a winning one for this production.  Williams has constructed a fairly simple set of a raised platform with some stage lights, a divan.  But the pieces de resistance are his towering windows complete with the effect of pouring rain.  His lights are also stunning with the complete blackness of brief power outages to soft fluorescent to sensual (and hostile) reds.  Kirby’s sounds go hand in hand with the set and lights with the gentle patter of rain, the booming claps of thunder, and the intense and creepy music as the show heads into the climax.

Georgiann Regan’s costumes are a perfect fit (pun intended).  Most striking are Ms Carlson-Brown’s leather and lace outfit for Vonda and her elegant dress as Wanda.  Olsen is costumed in the elegant rich as the character Kusiemski, but later switches to a footmen’s coat as  Kusiemski falls into servitude.  Or does he??

This play is going to get people talking as I heard numerous conversations taking place after the opening night performance.  The play is a dandy little mindbender anchored by stellar direction and a pair of stellar performances from its two actors.

Venus in Fur plays at the Blue Barn through Feb 25.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6:30pm (the Feb 18 show will be a 2pm matinee).  There is no performance on Feb 4.  Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for seniors (65+), students, and TAG members.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org.  Due to strong language and mature themes, this show is not suitable for children.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10 St in Omaha, NE.

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