How do you describe a play about sexual role playing and domination as “A sexy comedy”?
Obviously, director and cast must make sure that every humorous moment is played out — obviously. Which is just what the cast of two — Anthony Panzica and Libby Unruh — and directors Rick Ellis (primary) and Steve Gergacz (assistant) have done with “Venus in Fur,” the current production of South Bend Civic Theatre.
It is based on the 1870 novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. No surprise that the term “masochism” came from the author’s name. No surprise that masochism is a major plot line in “Venus.” So, if being hurt and humiliated by a sex partner is appealing, no surprise that this is the play for you.
Material aside, the performances by Panzica and Unruh are solid, with both handling the double sides of each role distinctly and believably, however uncomfortable that might be.
It is not everyone’s material.
The tendency to shift in your seat is a reaction to watching a growing relationship that is increasingly intimate and certainly not what is generally considered “normal,” but given the success of the “Fifty Shades” books and movie, that “normal” might be changing.
As the auditioning actress and the demanding director gradually reverse roles, the accompanying dialogue and actions are, for wont of a better comparison, like watching a small train wreck or the approach of a deadly viper.
It’s definitely difficult to look away.
Never mind trying to figure out just who this actress really is — her name, Vanda , is too close to that of the play’s leading character, Wanda — and she comes prepared with an entire script memorized and appropriate costumes for both characters, which she pulls from her large bag a la Mary Poppins.
As thunder and lightning rage outside the audition room, the man and woman circle, advance and retreat, with control of the situation moving from one to the other and, inevitably, to Vanda.
Who likes what and where will the power eventually reside? The answers to those questions become increasingly apparent with only the origin of the mysterious Vanda left to the individual imagination.
In addition to her multi-level performance, Unruh deserves applause for the ease with which she handles her costumes (from all-enclosing to hardly there) and the killer heels on which she stakes her claim to the role and the director.
Panzica has an even more difficult task. To make the eventual submission of the initially commanding director believable and even understandable. It is a task he handles well.
There is no intermission in the play and actually I could not think of a spot where a division would be doable without instantly destroying the intense atmosphere the actors create.
Jill Flora Hillman’s scenic design sets the right atmosphere, augmented by the lighting and sound designs.
“Venus in Fur” is not, in the long run, an easy play to watch. Like other modern scripts, however, it allows a look at a side of human nature that may be more familiar than most would like to admit.
“VENUS IN FUR” plays today through Sunday and April 24-26 in the SBCT Warner Theatre, 4303 N. Main St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit www.sbct.org.