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.

 

Love Life More with Ghost & Spice’s HAROLD AND MAUDE

Ghost & Spice Productions’ Harold and Maude at Common Ground Theatre. Photo courtesty of Ghost & Spice.

I’ve been putting off writing this review, because it is the last review I’ll have the opportunity to write about a Ghost & Spice production, and I can hardly stand it. Last call, folks. The “small but mighty” company that has brought out two choice plays a year for 11 years will cease production at the end of this run. With their typical flair, the members chose Harold and Maude to go out on. Like Maude, they’ve chosen their time. Like Harold—I’m counting on this—the actors/directors/musicians who have formed Ghost & Spice’s tight creative cell will reappear in all their zesty talent in other local productions. In the meantime, there’s this hilarious, heart-full, play directed by Rachel Klem going on out at Common Ground Theatre through October 13.

Harold and Maude was written by Colin Higgins first as a screenplay, then it became a novel to go along with the 1971 film; in 1980 he published a stage play version. The movie did not do well at first, nor did the play. The unusual love story of faux-suicidal young Harold, living with his rich L.A. mother and despairing of life, and almost-80 Maude, who lives every day with all her senses, has over the years developed an audience, and really, it is a jewel.

Ishai Buchbinder and Joan Darling in Harold and Maude. Photo courtesy of Ghost & Spice.

With Joan Darling in the Maude role, doing acting that never for a second seems like acting, and everyone rising to meet her standard, Klem must have had a wonderful time staging this endearing script. On opening night (9/28), all were word-perfect, and Ishai Buchbinder as Harold was remarkable (I particularly loved the tree-liberating scene). As usual, Klem’s pacing was excellent, allowing enough space for emotions to be felt, while moving the action briskly along. All the comic timing was great—and there are many comic moments along with the tender ones. If this production doesn’t inspire you to get more out of life, you may be already dead yourself.

Quite a bit of the comedy was supplied by Melissa Lozoff as Harold’s mother, Mrs. Chasen. The character is an over-heated piece of work, and Lozoff nearly goes over the top with her—but not quite. Desperate to get Harold out of the house and going in life, rather than cooking up schemes to make himself appear mutilated or dead, she sets him up with three dates from a computer dating service. The dates are all played by Raven Whisnant (wigs!), who between times croons the songs studding the show, along with music meister Rus Hames. (They play in a little room behind a large window, separated from the action, but visible to the actors, and us. It is a clever touch, making the musicians into overwatching spirits.) Whisnant was very good as the three wildly different dates, but when she was singing, I had a hard time taking my eyes off her face to watch the action.

The cast is rounded out by the redoubtable John Murphy as the uncle/the priest, wide-ranging Jeff Alguire as the baffled cop/the sexually available psychiatrist, and Amanda Hahn as Mrs. Chasen’s maid. Hahn marches around taking care of the Chasens—her only speech consists of multiple screams and a stuttered “but…” Each time she comes and goes without a word, she seems to get bigger and more powerful.

Rachel Klem, who is also the managing director of G & S and of Common Ground Theatre, says tickets for the remaining shows are going fast. If you want to say your goodbyes to Ghost & Spice in person, don’t dally.

Joan Darling and Ishai Buchbinder as Maude and Harold. Photo courtesy Ghost & Spice.

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