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‘Venus in Fur’ at Performance Network is a true tour de force

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PNT production of Venus in Fur

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Performance Network Theatre consistently manages to squeeze the most out of its actors and crew, and “Venus in Fur” is all that on steroids. Or perhaps, on Viagra. Sebastian Gerstner (“The Glass Menagerie”) and Maggie Meyer (“Becky Shaw”) have an explosive chemistry; to blink is to risk missing something amazing.

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It’s hard to describe this play to anyone unfamiliar with the Victorian novella from which it takes its theme – “Venus in Furs,” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Published in 1870, it is from Masoch that we derive the word “masochism” and through his novel that the idea of sadomasochism was given a measure of legitimacy. It is the story of Severin von Kusiemski, who has fantasies of being subjugated by the goddess Venus. When a woman named Wanda unexpectedly appears at his door, he discovers a mortal goddess upon whom he can transfer his deep passions and with whom he can realize his kinky desires. There’s a Lou Reed song by the same name that captures the essentials pretty well.

In the modern “Venus in Fur” (singular) by David Ives, we meet Thomas (Sebastian Gerstner), a somewhat pedantic playwright/director who has created a dramatic adaptation of the Sacher-Masoch work. After conducting a lengthy casting session, Thomas is distraught to find no one worthy of playing the female lead. That’s when Vanda (Maggie Meyer) makes her entrance – a rough-edged actress with nothing but her beauty to recommend her for the part. Unable to convince her to leave, Thomas lets her audition, reading the part of Severin himself.

As Thomas gives Vanda direction, and she transforms into the Wanda/Venus character, we can’t help but draw parallels with another play based on classical mythology – George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” In many ways, “Venus in Fur” starts out as “Pygmalion” set in the 21st Century – with Eliza Doolittle played by Barbarella in full dominatrix regalia. It’s hilarious in precisely the way “Pygmalion” is – with fish-out-of-water gaffes and the use of explosive profanity to betray the vulgar origins of our would-be duchess.

But “Venus in Fur” quickly slides into a much darker analysis of the passion/ pleasure/pain equation. And as Thomas seems to unconsciously (subconsciously?) surrender his control of the situation to Vanda, we are treated to a heady analysis of gender roles, sexist double standards, and the co-dependency of submission/domination relationships.

The delicate balance of power sustained in this play, and the subtle way in which the scales start to shift in Vanda’s favor, could not make sense without intelligent and muscular performances by Gerstner and Meyer. This play is a high-wire trapeze act in which the characters fly through the air and land in switched positions. It’s a 90-minute performance with no net.

“Venus in Fur” marks the brilliant Performance Network Theatre directorial debut of Jennifer Graham, a lecturer of Theatre at Eastern Michigan University. She is supported by Assistant Director, Marissa Kurtzhals. Scenic and Lighting Designer Daniel C. Walker gives the actors wonderful shadows to echo their actions through some of the show’s most dramatic moments. Production credits also inlcude Sound Designer, Carla Milarch; Costume Designer, Suzanne Young; Props Designer, Charles Sutherland; Stage Manager, Kat Altman; and Assistant Stage Manager, Megan Rosenberg.

“Venus in Fur” runs at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre through April 6, 2014, with performances on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Regular tickets are $22 - $41; discounted tickets for students, seniors and military are also available. This show is not suitable for minors. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 734-663-0681. Performance Network Theatre is located at 120 E Huron Street in Ann Arbor.

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