Hail Aphrodite:VENUS IN FUR at Common Ground, through V-day

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Love is a many-splendored thing. Mark Filiaci and Meredith Sause in David Ives’ VENUS IN FUR, at Common Ground Theatre. Photo: Alex Maness.

David Ives’ 2011 play, Venus in Fur, concerns a theatre director looking for an actress to portray a character in a play he’s written, based on the 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, for whom masochism is named. This playwright/director, Thomas (Mark Filiaci), has just had a terrible day of unsuccessful auditions for Vanda, the woman who agrees to dominate the play’s male lead (and possibly Thomas’ alter ego), when a woman named Vanda (Meredith Sause) blows in and insists on auditioning.

Got all those layers? Good, because, as the play (and the play within) develops, even more layers appear.

Directed by John Murphy, this American Theatre Practice production at Durham’s Common Ground is a scintillatingly intelligent and suave examination certain power relationships–the dance of desire between dominance and submission, and not just in love and sex. Although (the pleasure of) pain is discussed in the play(s), no actual pain is inflicted onstage or off. There is pleasure only, the pleasure of the smart script and fine, witty acting. This is the best I’ve ever seen Filiaci–the most complete acting–and saucy Meredith Sause is purely a delight, glowing with audacity, sexuality and high-wattage brainpower.

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Who’s zooming who? Sause and Filiaci in VENUS IN FUR. Rehearsal photo: Derrick Ivey.

 

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Playing within the play. Sause and Filiaci in VENUS IN FUR. Rehearsal photo: Derrick Ivey.

If, as I have, you have missed the literate, skilled, chamber theatre of the late, lamented Ghost and Spice group, you will want to catch this performance. Several of the folks involved with this American Theatre Practice production have long ties to G&S and Common Ground, and the general attitude is similar. There’s good, smart design and production, but the emphasis is on the thoughtful interpretation of character, and the overall meanings of the script. This particular production grew from one of the many readings with other actors that John Murphy has hosted at his home for many years, and it is subsidized by a theatre-loving individual, Dr. Michael Feezor.

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Misogyny revenged? Power, gender and “suprasensuality” in VENUS IN FUR. Rehearsal photo: Derrick Ivey.

Murphy is well-known for his many memorable roles in Triangle theaters since 1989; with his seamless direction here he demonstrates that he knows what works onstage from the inside out. The same is true for assistant director Marcia Edmundson, who has lit up so many area productions. They bring their decades of intimate knowledge of theater and theatricality to bear on this very theatrical script, often with delicious, laugh-out-loud results. Of course, Filiaci and Sause are both seasoned practitioners of the art, and toss off all the internal literary and dramatic references with the ease of knowledge, while revolving silkily through their characters’ changes. Both have the ability to stay completely in their story world, although the audience is only a few feet away; and they make the outer shell of the building disappear with their reality on stage. They are greatly aided in this by Derrick Ivey’s set and costuming; Chuck Catotti’s excellent lighting; and Kit Weinert’s moody sound design.

Venus in Fur continues at Common Ground Feb. 5-7, and Feb. 11-14. Tickets here.

Highly recommended.

 

A Common Wealth Endeavor at Common Ground

Small and Tired. The title had me from the get-go. Turns out to be a fascinating 2013 play by Australian Kit Brookman–based loosely on a big and fierce source, the Oresteia. “Loosely” is a key word here. It will not help you to follow the pains and struggles of this contemporary family if you try to directly tie them to the happenings in Aeschylus’ House of Atreus. For the clear lines between action and consequence quiver and blur without the gods and their rules, and this modern family founders in a mess of its own making. Or is it of their own making? Brookman has his Pylades point out, early in his first encounter with Orestes, that even generals are following orders, implying that the gods of war, at least, persist in our time. (Cue the Bob Dylan, 1963. “Masters of War.”)

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The ensemble in the Common Wealth Endeavors production of SMALL AND TIRED, at Common Ground Theatre through Jan. 23. Photo: Alex Maness.

What the two stories really have in common is war. Long, stupid war, in which men slaughter not just each other but women and children, and their slaughter wounds and kills the women and children they left at home. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to pacify the goddess Artemis; in Small and Tired, Iphigenia kills herself after seeing photographs from her (never named) father’s war–bloody Afghanistan. Nobody in the family was right after that. Young Orestes was sent far away to boarding school; now, upon his father’s death (the how of which is never told) he’s come “home” to organize the funeral, since his crazy sister Electra and his puzzling mother Clytemnestra can’t seem to manage, even with the help of Electra’s nice husband Jim.

This Common Wealth Endeavors presentation, currently at Common Ground Theatre (through Jan. 23) is the first US production of Small and Tired. Directed by Common Wealth Endeavors’ founder, Gregor McElvogue, it is the latest show in his ongoing effort to introduce us to English language plays from the rest of the English-speaking world. McElvogue, who is British, trained at the London Central School of Speech and Drama, and he has added hugely to the Triangle theatre scene for years, first as an emotionally powerful actor and clear-eyed director and now as the leader of these Common Wealth Endeavors. His directorial senses of timing and tone have resulted in some very fine performances of demanding plays.

Those senses seemed slightly out of kilter in the Jan. 9 performance that I saw. Although various scenes came vibrantly to life, in others, the actors’ delivery was wooden, their words sounding recited, rather than spoken. By rights, I should have been wrung out by the play’s end, but the erratic intensity levels precluded that. And generally, the pace was a bit languid–it did not contrast enough with the slow-moving scene changes, which in themselves were interesting–dim, cooly-lit, they allowed for tableaux as well as for moving the furniture, and were a marvelous way to indicate the passage of time.

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Jane Holding as Clytemnestra, and Justin Brent Johnson as her son Orestes, shortly before their final parting in SMALL AND TIRED. Photo: Alex Maness.

Although all of the men–Justin Brent Johnson as Orestes; Justin Peoples as Pylades; and Lihn Schladweiler as Jim–had some powerful speeches, the woman were more consistent. Laurel Ullman was pretty scary as Electra, but her force could have been greater with a few beats more of silence–she seemed a bit rushed. Jane Holding as Clytemnestra, however, cannot be rushed. Holding spun out her pauses; her unexpected comments burst forth as if from an opened pressure valve. Using stillness and slight shadings of voice and facial expression she communicated implacable will and vast suffering. She knows her line is ending. Iphigenia dead all these years; Orestes gay; Electra childless. All that is left is the long dwindling. Holding distills all that into the poignant moment when she says goodbye to Orestes. That moment, along with many others studded throughout the play’s 100 minutes, make the production’s shortcomings easily dismissible.

For tickets go here .

 

Vacation’s Over, Theatre’s in Full Swing

Area theaters are kicking the new year off right. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s PRC2 series has a very interesting one-woman show through Jan. 10, KJ Sanchez’ Highway 47.

One of the play’s purposes, of course, is for the artist to come to terms with being her father’s daughter. But unlike many personal history-centered performances, Sanchez uses those personal meditations to bolster the tragic story, rather than making herself and her trials the point of the production. Certainly she reveals a good deal of herself, but (so happy to report) her play is not screaming “me, me, me.” Instead, she allows this story to reveal a little-known aspect of the history of this continent, and cannily places it in the long theatrical tradition of exploring human frailty and venality, and the ties and taints of blood.

Go here to read my full review on cvnc.org.

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At PlayMakers’ PRC2 through Sunday, Jan. 10.

 

Elsewhere: take your pick, or gorge on theater day and night.

Friday brings the first night (also Jan. 9 and 14) of a developmental reading of a new work by Mike Wiley, Downrange: Voices from the Homefront, in Swain Hall at UNC-CH. Presented by the UNC Dept. of Communication Studies and Street Signs, this is the first in this Process Series, Veterans and Their Families: A Festival of New Works.  (919) 929-2787. http://www.streetsignscenter.org/

In Durham, the Delta Boys reprise their production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information at Manbites Dog through Jan. 10. Shows are selling out. Contact Manbites for tickets. www.manbitesdogtheater.org or 919.682.3343.

Common Wealth Endeavors previewed Small and Tired, a new play by Australian author Kit Brookman, last night at Common Ground Theatre. The official opening is tonight, and the run extends through Jan. 23.  Directed by Gregor McElvogue and starring Jane Holding, Justin Brent Johnson, Justin Peoples, Linh Schladweiler and Laurel Ullman, the play reworks the Ancient Greek myths surrounding the house of Atreus, setting them in a very recognizable landscape: the suburban back yard. tickets@fromcommonwealth.com  919 410 8631. Review coming here next week.

There’s lots more! Check your local calendars.

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