“I ache for the touch of your lips, dear/But much more for the touch of your whips, dear,” goes the Tom Lehrer song “The Masochism Tango.”
There’s a much more complex psychosexual dance in “Venus in Fur,” the captivating David Ives play getting a lusty local premiere from Seattle Repertory Theatre, in conjunction with Arizona Theatre Company.
Ives’ best-known previous works for the theater, including the popular one-act collection “All in the Timing,” showcase his sly, literate comic voice.
But the full-length “Venus in Fur” (while often funny) cuts deeper, as it explores layers of power dynamics between Thomas (Michael Tisdale), a frustrated playwright in need of a leading lady for his new work, and Vanda (Gillian Williams), a mercurial actress who turns up late for the audition.
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Under Shana Cooper’s whip-lashing direction, the nimble, forceful two-member cast keeps you guessing from the moment the seemingly gauche, blundering Vanda arrives to plead her case in the typical downtown Manhattan exposed-brick, warehouse-chic rehearsal loft that designer Sibyl Wickersheimer devised.
Bundled up, chattering, Vanda hardly seems a likely choice for Thomas’ play. He’s unsure, as we are, that she’s right for the part of the central female character in the erotic novel he’s adapted for the stage.
That would be “Venus in Furs,” a scandalous 1870 roman à clef by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — a novel that, among other effects, inspired the term masochism.
But Vanda is determined to portray the fur-bedecked baroness (based on Sacher-Masoch’s own mistress) who fulfills her lover’s intense sexual craving to be degraded and dominated.
And after slipping a more genteel, antique velvet dress over the black leather dominatrix gear she wore for the audition, Vanda surprises. She not only aces her lines but becomes so lasciviously seductive that Thomas keeps prolonging the audition.
If Vanda and Thomas just turned into the characters they read aloud, “Venus in Fur” might be titillating fun — and rather predictable.
But Ives is up to something much more devious and delicious. As the sexual electricity heats up, Vanda keeps snapping it off for critiques of the male-female power struggle the two characters are acting out.
She puts it on the line: Does meeting a man’s desire for submission really empower a woman? If she denies her own desires by granting (on demand) the infantile fantasies of her lover, who is really in charge? And is a man who declares his belief in female equality (as did Sacher-Masoch) willing to back it up, in the clinches?
Ives fully sustains an explosive, erotic and cerebral dialectic for 90 minutes, and scatters juicy clues as to Vanda’s increasingly mysterious identity.
“Venus in Fur” is a banquet for actors, and Tisdale and Williams dine on it with relish. In the flashier role, Williams finesses her many split-second transformations and pivots. She’s as convincing as a bumbling, irritating “Girls” wannabe as she is in her ferocious feline stage prowling.
Her chemistry with Tisdale (who also grabs the chance to heat up) is strong. And Cooper smartly exploits the entire Bagley Wright stage to choreograph this entertaining and provocative tango à deux.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org