REVIEW: Pleasure, pain and its portrayal through ‘Venus’ at Denver’s Curious Theater

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The squirms come slowly in the Curious Theatre Company’s provoking production of “Venus in Fur.”

The core themes in David Ives’ drama are bound to make portions of any audience uncomfortable. The stark, two-person show traces the roots of masochism and explores its modern legacy. Through straightforward interactions between two characters — a playwright and an actress auditioning for his latest play — the show delves into blunt questions about pain, pleasure, dominance and misogyny, complete with dog collars and leather as props.

It’s hardly the stuff of “Our Town.” At times, the content here has a stronger tie to the themes of “50 Shades of Grey” than most theater fare.

Venus in Fur through June 14 at Denver's Curious Theater
Venus in Fur through June 14 at Denver’s Curious Theater

But the whips, chains and pain aren’t all that’s going on in this impressive production directed by Chip Walton. Ives drills down to larger questions about the balance of sexual power in Western society, and the Curious Theatre’s sharp production captures all the most subtle themes of the text through powerhouse performances, nuanced direction and well-crafted design.

That achievement comes through precise pacing and tasteful delivery. The show is never overly explicit. Themes of dominance and subjugation arise gradually. Because of the structure of the show, all of the central questions find a framework in matters of fiction, art and theory. The show begins as a casual reading between an actress and a director — their discussions about dialogue, blocking and stagecraft offer an initial filter to the carnality.

Those in-depth discussions rely on the skill of the slim cast here, and the show’s two leads impressively pull it off. As playwright Thomas Novachek, Brett Aune is a portrait of haughtiness and presumption. The show opens after a long day of unsuccessful auditions, with Novachek speaking to his fiancé on his cell phone and complaining about the crop of actresses who just came through his office in a former warehouse space.

“Venus in Fur” 

Through  June 14
at the Curious Theatre, 1080 Acoma St. in Denver

Tickets start at $18

303-623-0524
curioustheatre.org

3.5 stars

None of the performers captured the essence of Wanda von Dunayev, the lead character in his new play based on the 1870 novel “Venus in Furs.” That novel, written by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, offered the origins of masochism (the term stems in part from the name of the author). None of the actresses properly understood the demands of Wanda, the central female character who ends the drama in a position of subservience.

That’s when Vanda arrives. Played by Karen Slack, the actress is crass, crude and unrefined. Dressed in a leather S&M outfit to properly realize the character, she begs the playwright for a last-minute reading. He agrees, and the pair navigate the real content and meaning of Novachek’s show.

That back-and-forth is the highlight of the Curious production. Aune devolves from an artist exploring a theoretical theme to a flawed player with his own perversions. Aune’s downfall is impressive and seamless.

Slack’s transformation is even more stunning. It’s soon clear that she’s more than an out-of-work actress — her insights into the perversions and true implications of the text reveal a deeper knowledge of the material. Her initial questions about motivations and themes progress into accusations and criticisms. She speaks as an emissary of the ancient goddess of Venus. Eventually, when she calls into question the playwright’s motivation for adapting a 19th-century novel about subjugation, she’s a spokeswoman for an entire society. The shift is stunning, and it makes for the most memorable moments of the show.

The back-and-forth comes to life on a stage brilliantly designed by Michael Duran and eerily lit by Shannon McKinney. Novachek’s workshop in a former sweatshop comes to life on the Curious stage. Adorned simply with a divan, a desk and a coffee machine, the stark stage allows the audience to shift perspectives and settings along with the actors. McKinney’s lighting cues complete that effect. The lightning flashes, the shifts between harsh fluorescent light and evocative reds, the subtle use of a darker color palette — it all helps the constant shifts between theoretical discussions and a play-within-a-play.

The effect has its hits and misses. The weight of the themes and the detail of the discussions weigh down the show at some moments, but the skill of the two-person cast help keep the drama aloft. For all the squirms and uncomfortable moments, this show asks important questions about the true roots of subjugation and dominance in Western society.