A little over two months ago, I drove out to Fort Worth to see Circle Theatre’s production of Venus in Fur, just for funsies. The sexy David Ives play had made a splash off and on Broadway about three years ago, mainly because of the Tony Award-winning performance of its unknown starlet, Nina Arianda. I’d hardly call Allison Pistorious unknown here in DFW, but her riveting take on the mysterious actress Vanda Jordan left me enthralled. I’m happy to report that two months later, as WaterTower Theatre is remounting Circle’s production in its studio space, her performance has only improved.
The play, which some lazily compare to Fifty Shades of Grey, erotically tackles themes of dominance and power using Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs as its base (think about last name for a second). Thomas (Chris Hury) is a playwright/director searching for the perfect actress to play the complicated role of the baroness. After complaining over the phone to his fiancé about the lack of talent he’s auditioned that day, in whirls Vanda in a tornado of dripping umbrellas and vulgar language. She’s hours late for her audition and the complete opposite of the feminine ideal Thomas is seeking. But when she slips on a ruffled white dress (from her Mary Poppins-like bag of costumes and props) and lowers her voice to a dusky, Continental purr, she’s suddenly exactly right.
Part of the seductive tension of Ives’ play comes from the mystery of Vanda—who is she, really? Where did she come from? Why does she have the entire script already memorized? Why is she so in tune with the character who conveniently shares her name? Why does she show up wearing a dog collar and leather lingerie? We’re presented with a few different theories throughout the 95-minute play, but those open-ended suggestions might leave you more frustrated than satisfied, the only strike against Ives’ otherwise smart script.
The rest of the tension—most of it sexual—comes from the actors playing Thomas and Vanda. As previously mentioned, Pistorious is spellbinding. It’s delicious to watch her switch characters instantly, especially because her present-day Vanda seems to be constantly evolving, with thoughts and motivations roiling beneath the surface. The surplus time between productions has only deepened her portrayal.
Pistorious dominates Hury, in more ways than one. Hury, usually so gratifying when he plays slimy bastards, here feels a bit pale and washed-out next to Pistorious, who is (literally) cracking the whip. His Thomas should be crueler from the start, his misogyny and sexism running rampant and therefore setting himself up for the revelatory moment when he finds himself succumbing to the submissive role he secretly craves.
This co-production between Circle and WaterTower, something of a new trend in the area that hopefully will continue, allowed another audience base to experience a bewitching performance and exciting interpretation (by director Krista Scott). And that’s not a tease.