Christopher Gonzalez

 

Venus in Fur: The (Play Within the) Play’s the Thing!

Twilight Theater gets physical with the sexy mysteries and meta-theatrical layers of the David Ives hit.

The sound of dissonant strings swells as audience members file in and find seats. Folks flip through programs and sip wine. But an uneasy tension looms as the audience settles in for David Ives’s Venus in Fur, now playing at Twilight Theater.

Before I saw it Friday night, all I had heard about this play is that it was about sadism and masochism — an uninterrupted 90 minutes of good ‘ol S&M.

As if that wasn’t intimidating enough, I braced against an evening of confusing, self-indulgent writing when I read that Venus in Fur has a play within the play.

I quickly left those assumptions behind as the whirlwind began.

Ominous thunder. A divan. A despondent director/playwright. This is our austere introduction to Venus in Fur. Lights come up on Thomas Novachek, played by Jeff Giberson, on the phone with his fiancee. Thom complains about the bad actresses he’s been auditioning for his new play, who just aren’t “feminine” enough. Thom isn’t exactly what one would call “woke.” He can only conceive of women in restrictive, dehumanizing terms; they must either are be goddesses, whores, or as he put it, “dykes.”

Just as Thom is about to give up on his quest for his perfect female lead, we hear thunderclaps outside. Enter Vanda, played by Jaiden Wirth. Coincidentally, Vanda is also the name of the character that she is auditioning for. Trippy, right?

Thom’s play within the play is called Venus in Furs (plural), an adaptation of a novel by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. Sacher-Masoch’s novel inspired the term “masochism”, and centers around Severin von Kushemski. All Kushemski wants is a goddess to dominate and subjugate him. So here we have Thom, reading the part of Kushemski, and Vanda reading Vanda. This character-nesting-doll dynamic is the springboard from which we dive into the dark blend of comedy and mystery that is Venus in Fur.

In David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” the quest for an ideal female lead leads both an actress (Jaiden Wirth, left) and director (Jeff Giberson) in unexpected directions. Photo: Alicia Turvin.

In her directorial debut with Twilight, Alicia Turvin effectively plays with different levels of sitting, standing, or lying down to communicate shifts in power and status. Under her direction, the actors were clearly given room to explore physicality to communicate subtext and express intention.  

Actress Jaiden Wirth makes many strong physical and vocal choices as Vanda. Her smaller choices get the biggest laughs, such as when she picks her nose, sneezes, or sits down in a funny way. When Wirth coolly snaps into the role of the 18th-century Vanda, her countenance takes on a powerful repose, and her voice deepens so that she is practically unrecognizable.

Giberson takes his time as Thom. In the beginning, his reserve is a ballast in the thunder storm of Vanda’s energy. But when he becomes Kushemski, Giberson shifts from the confident stoicism of a mansplaining playwright, to that of a submissive “quivering pile of feminine jelly.” Giberson is a tall man, which onstage often communicates high status, but as he transitions to Kushemski, he successfully conveys submissiveness and inferiority through his physicality.

Turvin is both set designer and director on this production. The set begins as an unbalanced tableau, with most of the furniture one side of the stage. This imbalance is striking, and dovetails nicely with the imbalance of power between Thom and Vanda at the beginning of the play. As Vanda assumes more power, she rearranges the furniture and fills in the empty space, effectively balancing both the tableau and the power dynamic.

Vanda (Jaiden Wirth, right) rearranges the furniture and the power dynamic in the office of a director and playwright (Jeff Giberson) in “Venus in Fur.” Photo: Alicia Turvin.

There are many layers to Venus in Fur which provoke questions about what this play really wants to be. On one hand it may be an argument against that pyramidic, patriarchal model of theater-making that elevates male playwrights and directors to divinity. On the other hand, maybe it’s about the culture of casting couches.

Maybe it’s just a suspenseful, sexy enigma.

Whatever it is, I promise you, it is not as intimidating as anticipated. It is actually rather straightforward in that the whole thing is a single uninterrupted scene, easy to follow and to enjoy. Twilight’s production of Venus in Fur is an entertaining exercise in theatrical (and sexual) restraint.

 

Out of Sterno: heroine’s journey

Rosie Rose Productions brings a clever, timely play to The Siren Theater.

Out of Sterno, the Deborah Zoe Lauffer play that concludes its run at the Siren Theater on Sunday, July 29, manages to teach (and not preach) us how to be better citizens.

Dotty, the heroine of Out of Sterno, has never left the walls of her small and very pink home. Her life is centered on her husband Hamel. She spends her time preparing dinner, doing his laundry, and rewatching video footage of the first time they met. Dotty’s call-to-adventure is literally an unexpected telephone call from Hamel’s mistress, Zena.

At first, Dotty smiles and denies the unpleasant truth of the affair: “As Momma always said, ‘there’s nothing so horrible it can’t be explained away.’” Dotty leaves her home, and witnesses Hamel and Zena embracing and smooching. Nevertheless, she proceeds to see the best in Hamel. She even befriends Zena. Eventually, Dotty’s agency and personal power materialize after an absurd yet tender journey through the manifold obstacles in her way.

Continues…

Portland’s New King of Comedy

Alex Falcone snatches the crown at Helium Comedy’s Portland’s Funniest Person Championship

Stakes were high at Helium Comedy Club’s sold-out Portland’s Funniest Person competition on Wednesday night. Twelve comedians, who had survived a month-long gauntlet, had one last chance to win over the audience and judges. After two and a half hours of stand-up, host and previous champion Caitlin Weierhauser finally passed both crown and scepter on to this year’s winner: Alex Falcone.

Alex Falcone, Portland’s new king of comedy.

Past winners of Portland’s Funniest Person, such as Ian Karmel, have gone on to receive Emmy nominations and write for late-night talk shows. Other winners, like Nathan Brannon, have recorded comedy albums and taken to the road for national tours. In addition to the invitation to open for headliners at Helium, winners also receive a comfy twelve hundred dollars. Oh yeah, and perhaps the most prestigious prize: bragging rights.

Ian Karmel: On beyond Helium.

Falcone let loose an onslaught of punchline after punchline, each stronger than the last. He packed so much material into his set, it felt like a Netflix special. His set was also the only one that was thematically coherent; it was essentially a single narrative exploration of fatherhood and family. It all led up to a great closing bit about consent: “Talking to your son about consent is important,” Falcone says, “but consent is a bare minimum. What you’re looking for is … participation. ”

Falcone took home the big win, but second-place winner Mohanad Elshieky got some of the biggest laughs of the night. Elshieky is no stranger to the competition — he was second runner-up last year, and the Portland Mercury has dubbed him an “undisputed genius of comedy.” His set was arguably the most challenging. His perceptive jokes ranged from his experience as an immigrant, to superficial liberal solidarity, to gun control.

Continues…