Nothing short of brilliant, Venus in Fur, at Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre, electrifies as it astounds audiences with bold, brazen, in-your-face sexuality and complexities of hidden desire while exploring sadomasochism themes.
The Unicorn Theatre blazed into its 40th season by presenting the controversial Tony Award nominated play, Venus in Fur by David Ives, based upon an actual book that explores a man’s hidden desires for sadomasochism encounters and suppressed inner sexuality. The bold play pushes the envelope with characters not traditionally seen on stage.
Credit dynamic acting from the tandem of Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo for digging deeply into each character and trusting the direction of Cynthia Levin to encourage terrific performances in challenging, demanding roles. While Severo’s character of Vanda physically dresses and undresses several times, Sneary’s character mostly undresses emotionally on stage. Severo’s dominatrix costume shocks, but her character rapid-fire switches move her character into deeper, darker levels. Yes, Sneary changes costumes as his character of Thomas unveils new depths of character, but his emotional layering and stripping stand out more than the costumes.
Levin’s concept for the play puts the audience intimately close to the stage and action. Channels of seats align opposite sides of the stage, so the action takes place between audience seating. If eyes stray from the actors, the view allows guests to see how other audience members react. The concept took a piece that was viewed by large Broadway venue crowds to an intimate encounter with actors and audience. As such, the audience can react more fully to the actions viewed.
The play opens as Thomas, a playwright and first time director shows frustration in not finding an actress capable of playing his lead character Vanda for an erotic telling of Venus in Fur. And, during a thunderstorm complete with thunder, lightning, the most opposite and brash actress bolts in. Amazingly, her name is Vanda; she wants to audition; and she’s so not right for his Victorian character.
Something so wrong becomes something so right as Vanda begins reading with him. Sneary’s uptight and detached character begins to soften and change as Vanda the person transforms into Vanda the character he desperately needs for the play. Vanda possesses knowledge beyond his wildest expectations. As the play and reading progresses, he changes more and more as his character sheds layer after layer of Thomas.
Severo’s brash Vanda becomes Thomas’ vision of Vanda the seductress of his play. Severo immerses her Vanda of present into Vanda the dominatrix. Her change from one extreme to another merits laughs and shock as she clicks back and forth between the two Vandas. Only a gifted actress could make such flawless and instantaneous changes. Severo superb acting comes across and believable in both Vandas.
As Thomas, Sneary builds his character from harsh and detached to astounded and likeable. His reactions to the two Vandas help craft his character from mild to strong. As the play continues, he blends, changes, reacts, and undergoes a metamorphism into a new and hidden Thomas as role playing and role reversal demand him. Sneary explores the inner darkness of his playwright character and sheds layer upon layer of fresh surprise to the audience. Sneary’s performance brought a dynamic characterization to a difficult part that strips bare hidden desires. His performance astounds the audience.
Severo and Sneary’s mutual trust shows through Venus in Fur as the material required them to strip bare their personal limits to portray Vanda and Thomas. Only two actors with mutual respect and trust in each other could perform at the heights reached. Their performances astounded, mesmerized, and shocked.
The game of cat and mouse and hunter and hunted changes dramatically under Levin’s direction. The creative crew that managed sound and lights matched each different scene and action.
Venus in Fur runs through Sept. 29. Performances run Tues, Wed. and Thurs. At 7:30pm. Fri. and Sat. performances begin at 8pm, and Sun. performances begin at 3pm. Venus in Fur runs for 90 minutes with no intermission. The show is for adults and contains much strong language. For tickets: 816-531-7529 or online unicorntheatre.org.