In its 40th year, the Unicorn Theatre continues its mission of bringing new American plays to Kansas City audiences. Among the themes explored this season are racial identity, family dysfunction, and, with its kickoff production, Venus in Fur, the ever-shifting power dynamic between men and women.
The play, by David Ives, is set at an actress's audition for an up-and-coming playwright, and is nothing if not a paradox. It has no violence yet there are intimations of menace. There's no sex but plenty of eroticism.
Director Cynthia Levin says that, through the rehearsal process, what the play means to her and her cast keeps evolving.
“We have found about 10,000 levels at this point in this play,” says Levin. “It’s about male-female relationships. It’s about dominance and submission. It’s about power. And who has the power and how do you use that and how does that power shift.
“We have a found a play about foreplay; it’s not necessarily about sex but it’s about what is pre-sex, and how do you use that. How do you flirt. And a lot of times it comes down to role-playing, and certain strengths and certain weaknesses in a relationship.”
A force of nature
Venus in Fur made enough of a splash Off-Broadway in 2010 to then move on to Broadway, winning its lead actress, Nina Arianda, a Best Actress Tony.
In the Unicorn's production, Rusty Sneary plays Thomas Novachek, a playwright at the end of a grueling day of auditions. In the following scene, he's about to call it a night when the room is besieged by a force of nature - a mercurial actress named Vanda Jordan, played by Vanessa Severo.
Thomas: Have you read it?
Vanda: I flipped through it kinda quick on the train. So what can you tell me? This is like based on something, right?
Thomas: This is based on an old German novel called Venus in Fur by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
Vanda: I bet you read it in German.
Thomas: I did, actually. Anyway, the book was a huge scandal in 1870.
Vanda: Well, sure. It’s basically S&M porn.
Thomas: It’s not S&M porn.
Vanda: You don’t think it’s porn? Or pornish? For like Medieval times, eighteen-whatever?
Thomas: Venus in Fur is a great love story. It’s a serious novel. It’s a central text of world literature.
Meeting of the minds
Only on its surface is the play about an audition. It becomes, over its 90 minutes, a cat-and-mouse game of dominance and submission. Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo take turns explaining who their characters think they are and how their fateful meeting alters that.
“To me, I think this guy thinks he knows exactly who he is,” Sneary says. “He’s pretty sure of himself but learns and discovers about himself who he really wants to be or maybe not who he wants to be.
“It’s a journey through the play about being taught by this woman some things that excite him, that he hasn’t realized before. Some things he doesn’t like about his life that maybe he hasn’t given that much thought to. Or maybe he has. And he kind of gets led a little bit into what he could become and what could possibly take him out of this life he’s stuck in.”
“Who is Vanda?” Severo says. “An unapologetic, boisterous, magical person that comes into the room and knows that she’s right for the part. You think by watching her, ‘Oh my goodness, this woman is an idiot.' And then there’s a twist. She begins reading and there’s something quite fantastic about her.
“There’s a line in a play that talks about relationships and how one person must be the hammer and one must be the anvil. So she comes into this room and there’s a chemistry and a power play and I think people take turns being the hammer and the anvil, sometimes many times within ninety minutes."
Neither Sneary nor Severo had to audition themselves for this play. Director Cynthia Levin says she chose them because of the trust they'd earned working for her before. And Severo describes how the intricate sexual power games on display called forth that trust and, one night, a special visitor to the set.
“We had a sex therapist come in, which was fascinating,” says Severo. “She was talking to us about a submissive-dominating relationship, and what’s the kick out of that.
“She told us that what they find is that everything is foreplay. They set up this road map of what I like, what you like, what you can do, what you cannot do, and they adhere to it completely. So most of that relationship is the building of trust, so when they do get involved, they know that they’re safe, and that’s what that whole relationship is.”
Lest potential audience members who aren't actors think the audition process is something foreign and irrelevant to them, think of job interviews and blind dates, for starters, which are in essence auditions of a different color.
Venus in Fur, September 4-28, Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, MO, 64111, 816-531-7529.
The Artists in Their Own Words series is funded by the Missouri Arts Council, a stage agency.