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.

 

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Go Down, Moses

This article was originally published by INDYWEEK, 10/23/2013, and appeared in print with the headline “A night different from other nights.” I gave the production 5 out of 5 stars.

A powerful post-Civil War encounter in ArtsCenter Stage’s The Whipping Man

Through Sunday at The ArtsCenter

by 

Art necessarily takes on the issues of its own time, but it is in its processing of history that art often excels in feeding civilization. 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Carrboro ArtsCenter Stage has focused its season on that event and its long aftermath, beginning with a stunning production of The Whipping Man, a 2006 play by Matthew Lopez.

ArtsCenter Stage has always been the little theater that could, and this production proves once again that a tiny stage, nonexistent back-of-house and minimal staff cannot weaken the transformative power of drama. The Whipping Man is two hours long, and for many of those 120 minutes, you will be on the edge of your seat. The script’s intricate folds open slowly; but during the second act, the intermittent popping of secrets becomes a fusillade leading to cannon-fire of explosive knowledge, which exposes both characters and audience in the fiery wreckage.

Victor Rivera as Caleb and Phillip B. Smith as Simon in Matthew Lopez' THE WHIPPING MAN. Photo: Adam Dodds.

Victor Rivera as Caleb and Phillip B. Smith as Simon in Matthew Lopez’ THE WHIPPING MAN. Photo: Adam Dodds.

The story takes place over three days in April 1865, less than a week after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. As the play begins, we see Caleb DeLeon (Victor Rivera, moving effectively from callow and commanding to chastened awareness), dragging himself, grievously wounded, into the remains of his father’s once-grand Richmond house (all the production design work is very strong). Caleb is a Jew and a Confederate soldier, and his parents have fled the city, which is now under Federal control. But two former slaves have remained in the house for their own reasons: Having been part of the household all their lives, they too are Jews. John is a young man, about Caleb’s age; Simon is of a solid middle age, and the man without whom the household cannot run.

It is a season of mud and blood, of despair and rejoicing. And it is Passover.

Incisively directed by Mark Filiaci, with a restraint that makes late revelations all the more forceful, the three actors obliterate this time in a modern town and replace it with desperate days in ruined Richmond. This is not a play where you are forced to always keep in mind that it is a play. It is not art about art. The actors do not speak directly to the audience. They speak to us through the power of the dramatic story, and with their fearless acting.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Phillip B. Smith, Victor Rivera. All excel in THE WHIPPING MAN, but the show belongs to Smith. Photo: Adam Dodds.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Phillip B. Smith, Victor Rivera. All excel in THE WHIPPING MAN, but the show belongs to Smith. Photo: Adam Dodds.

Led by Phillip B. Smith as Simon, they make us know some essential things about that past and the way it has shaped our present. Without spelling them out, playwright Lopez has Simon engage us with a range of moral quandaries—what is good, what is right, what is necessary, what can be forgiven, what cannot be allowed to pass without counteraction? Simon holds the most knowledge of the three men, though he doesn’t know everything he thinks he knows. He chivvies the feckless John (Alphonse Nicholson, again leaping ahead of himself in nuanced understanding), who’s frittering his freedom liberating whisky, fancy clothes and piles of books; he saves Caleb’s life; he feeds all three of them. And he insists on holding a Seder at Caleb’s bedside, even though Caleb lost his faith in the trenches of Petersburg.

That Seder scene, with its celebrations and revelations, is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever witnessed on stage. Do not miss it.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Victor Rivera, Phillip B. Smith in Seder scene of THE WHIPPING MAN, at the ArtsCenter through Oct. 26. Photo: Adam Dodds.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Victor Rivera, Phillip B. Smith in the Seder scene of THE WHIPPING MAN, at the ArtsCenter through Oct. 26. Photo: Adam Dodds.

The ArtsCenter will also present a free screening of the documentary film “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray,” followed by a discussion led by scholars Robert Marcus and Leonard Rogoff, on Sunday, Oct. 26 at 4 pm. For more information or tickets call the box office at 919-929-2787.

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