Fifty shades of gender play
Critic is a lowly dog not worthy of this entertaining play
I took an acting class once. In community college, a long, long time ago. I was outright God-awful. Like, laughably bad. And—as trying something and sucking at it tends to do—it gave me tremendous respect for people who do it well (this also explains, by the way, my deep admiration for married people).
It also explains why I’m really relating to one of the central themes of this new production of David Ives’ Venus in Fur: the inversion of power and gender roles in the theater world, and to a larger extent, the entertainment industry—and to an even larger extent, the whole dang world (more on that in a moment).
Co-produced by both the Rogue and Blue Room Theatres, Thursday (Jan. 16) night’s showing of Venus in Fur opened with present-day playwright Thomas Novachek complaining on the phone to his fiancée about the women he’s been auditioning for the female lead of his new play, an adaptation of 19th century erotic novella Venus in Furs, written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose last name eventually provided the “M” in “S&M”). In walks Vanda—an all-over-the-place actress who strangely shares names with the character she’s auditioning for. At first, it seems to Thomas, that’s about the only thing that’s right. Not only is she two hours late for an appointment she apparently never had, she’s also the very embodiment of everything Thomas has been complaining about in his auditionees: ignorant, unsophisticated, unfeminine as he sees femininity.
But as she begins performing scenes with him, Vanda’s command of the material takes Thomas aback, and what ensues is a high-momentum, enjoyably disorienting, twisting, multilayered, 90-minute real-time test of wills full of sexuality, power dynamics, literary wit and real surprises.
It came as no shock to me to learn, later, that Venus in Fur is currently the most produced non-Shakespearean, non-holiday-themed play in America.
Sounds good, right? And it was good. Pretty good.
The thing is, with a two-person play like this one, which is not emotionally profound as much as it is exhilaratingly clever, the experience for the audience really hinges on the acting and the dynamic between the two actors on stage—in this case, Jeremy Votava and Suzanne Papini. Votava and Papini are full of charisma and, it must be said, are really easy on the eyes, especially as Papini almost immediately began disrobing down to lingerie, vivid tattoos and a dog collar. But, though there were occasional special-effect strobe flashes of lightning and recordings of thunder, there just wasn’t—at least on opening night—any electricity in the air between these two actors. In particular, I found Papini’s performance, which included some flubbed lines, to be somewhat scene-chewing and disconnected. The result was like a low dose of an SSRI antidepressant: I was entertained, but I just couldn’t quite feel it.
This brings me back to my great respect for actors and the theme (present in the play) of gender and power roles in the entertainment industry. As with directors and playwrights, the great preponderance of theater and film critics are men—which is to say, positions of influence and control in the entertainment industry are largely “dominated” by men. Women, for instance, write only one of eight plays performed on Broadway and represent just 5 percent of directors in Hollywood. (Although it should be noted that for the 2013-14 season, half of the most-produced plays in the country were written by women—which is the best percentage in the past nine seasons).
And a recent San Diego State University study found that, at least when it comes to film, men write 82 percent of reviews (a percentage that holds roughly true here at the Chico News & Review, too).
I feel shitty, is my point, about being yet another mansplaining critic who finds an actor’s (and especially an actress’) performance too this or too that, or lacking in x or in y—especially since the two actors in this case obviously worked their asses off for this complex and demanding play. I couldn’t do what Papini does if I rehearsed for two millennia. In fact, I’m not even worthy to lick Papini’s boot. I’m sorry, mistress!