“Whatever happened to femininity?” writer-director Thomas (Joe Bearor) complains in his audition room. Poor Thomas can’t find a single actress smart, sensual, and powerfully feminine enough to play the lead in his new show, Venus in Fur, which he’s adapted from the 1870 book that inspired the term “masochism.” And things don’t look any better when crass, slaphappy, unsophisticated Vanda (Casey Turner) shows up. But audition she does, to unexpected ends, in David Ives’s Venus in Fur, a play-within-a-play about power, gender, and sexual fantasy. Peter Brown and Keith Powell Beyland co-direct a deliciously sly Maine premiere of the production, starring Bearor and Turner — both virtuosic — in the much-anticipated return to the boards of Dramatic Repertory Company.
Thomas’s play concerns Severin, an aristocrat who has come to fetishize submission. He falls for a woman — also named Vanda; what are the odds? — who considers herself “a pagan,” living entirely for pleasure. What ensures is “erotic,” quips Vanda the actress, “if you’re into humiliation.” This pains intellectual Thomas. But in his very un-erotic audition space — institutional metal desk, plastic coffeemaker, shabby green divan — actress and director get quite into playing the roles.
Rich in profanity, playful kink, and slow-burn reversals, Ives’s script is a sensual playground for two skilled actors, and Bearor and Turner fully own both its broad strokes and its subtleties. When Vanda arrives, Bearor’s self-regarding, metrosexual Thomas condescends just dickishly enough — disdainful eyebrows, the tone of a teacher with an unruly teen — to seem a certain kind of Everyman. Turner’s cheerfully brassy Vanda keeps him on his toes as she veers from one thought to the next with a sudden, guttural “Ooooh,” tongue in teeth, feet stomping. Turner’s characteristic brightness lends her Vanda something interestingly wholesome even in her vulgarities, lends something compellingly alarming to the high-beam brilliance of her smile.
It’s as they shift in and out of the play-within-a-play that things really get interesting. Wearing now modern S&M-wear, now a white gown, Turner turns on a dime from the actress Vanda’s brashness to the character Vanda’s sophistication, bringing it down several registers in volume, tone, and gesture. The first time she speaks as the character Vanda, her body motionless, her voice is suddenly rich with subtext; listen for her suddenly exquisite articulation as she says, of Severin’s erotic bookmark, “Your Venus is as well-thumbed as your Faust.” Like Thomas, we lean in, hold our breath, watch closely for what knowledge or urge her newly controlled face and frame might reveal.
As Vanda swerves in and out of character with Thomas, with a build that Brown and Beyland pace expertly, Bearor navigates cannily between condescension, fascination, rage, arousal, and pathos. He lets us see a man from whose feet Vanda pulls the carpet repeatedly, and he registers it in the shifting set of his jaw and shoulders, in his hands poised or slack, in how the arrogance inflates or leaches from his voice. Turner, meanwhile, does an electric job of modulating each new glint of the actress in the character and the character in the actress. And an incredible “improvisation” scene, in which Vanda channels a jolly German Aphrodite — a jaw-dropping send-up of the feminine ideal — is itself worth the price of admission.
As the terms of power are renegotiated, DRC’s savvy, charged production seduces as it reveals how skewed, and how laughable, the projections of the male gaze can be. What “happened” to femininity? How about what hack writer came up with it?
Venus in Fur, by David Ives | Directed by Peter Brown and Keith Powell Beyland | Produced by Dramatic Repertory Company, at the Portland Stage Studio Theater | Through March 12 | $20-35 | www.dramaticrep.org