Strong Performances, Unsettling Play

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.

Venus in Fur  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreIt’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.

Sondheim Musical Has Murderous Theme

There is one thing about musicals by Stephen Sondheim.

You either love them or, well, hate is a rather strong word, but dislike is a reasonable substitute.

Probably this reason, as well as the fact that plotlines tend to be a bit skewed — a murderous barber, an obsessive spinster, mix-and-match fairy tales — and the scores deceptively difficult, is why the works of a composer generally regarded as the greatest in his generation are not regularly scheduled by all levels of theater companies.

Assassins Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INFan or non-fan, when the opportunity to attend the performance of a Sondheim work is available it should be at the top of the must-see list.

In 1990, “Assassins” by Sondheim and frequent collaborator John Weidman premiered off-Broadway and, after a brief run, retreated to other locations until finally making it to Broadway in 2004 where it earned five Tony Awards.

“Assassins” opened Friday evening in the Bristol Opera House. The Elkhart Civic Theatre production is under the direction of Jerry O’Boyle, assisted by Amy Pawlosky. It features a cast which ranges from very strong to trying hard, the usual mix for a community show. The result is a memorable if not completely satisfying evening.

The premise of “Assassins” gives new meaning to the term “off beat.” In an abstract setting (originally a shooting gallery) are gathered nine actual historical characters, each successful — or not — in killing a president of the United States.

From John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, with stops at several lesser known shooters, Sondheim’s music examines the individAssassins  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INuals behind the historical figures. None of their reasons for considering assassination are the same. None are portrayed as sympathetic characters yet each is sadly human in his/her search for solutions. That most find it in a gun is dreadfully relevant today and, in the end, is no solution at all.

Standouts in the ECT production are John Shoup as Booth, the actor and Southern sympathizer who killed President Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago, on April 14, 1865. Both Shoup’s characterization and his vocal interpretations are highlights. The same solidly hypnotic work is delivered by Jacob Medich as Leon Czologosz, a deeply angered factory worker who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901.

Deron Bergstresser creates a tragically delusional Charles Guiteau, whose dance to the gallows for the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield is a time step of black humor.

Brock Butler is a brooding John Hinckley. His duet with Kellie MacGowan as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme is one of the show’s best known numbers, “Unworthy of Your Love.” The unattainable objects of their devotion were actress Jodi Foster and Charles Manson, respectively, and the survivors of their murderous attempts, President Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford.

Ford also was the target for Sara Jane Moore whose aim was as off as her reason. As Moore, Joan Troyer steals every scene, even without a vocal solo assignment, and offers some well-deserved and much needed laughs.

Assassins  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INAs a drunken Samuel Byck in a Santa suit, Michael Flauding’s alcoholic monologues are uncomfortably close to home as he attempts to pilot a commercial jet into the White House of President Richard Nixon.

Dustin Crump as Guiseppe Zangara turns abdominal pains into a reason for an assassination attempt on President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The final assassin to join the “family” is Lee Harvey Oswald (Joe Covey), depicted here (with obvious literary license) as an unhappy misfit planning on suicide but re-directed at the urging of his fellow killers.

Also woven into the various stories are anarchist agitator Emma Goldman (April Sellers), David Herold (Brent Graber) who helped Booth in his escape attempt, and Billy Moore (Christian Yoder), son of Sara Jane, whose ear-splitting demand for ice cream receives an hilarious parental response.

Serving as Balladeers are Annie Kron, Katie Ouellette, Joshua D. Padgett, Jane and Manda Payton, Rick Regan and Zach Rivers.

The excellent orchestra under the direction of keyboardist Roy Bronkema includes Miriam Houck, Kelly Rider and Aaron Nichols.

Shoup designed the rather abstract setting, with lighting design by Stephanie Isley, sound by Garry Cobbum and video by Graber and O’Boyle.

“ASSASSINS” plays Friday through Sunday in the Bristol Opera House. For performance times and reservations, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit www.elkhartcivictheatre.org.