S TA G E
Venus in Fur brings the whip down
at the Unicorn, and it feels good.
L I Z C O OK
he lights come up on a New York casting office, depressingly institutional, a little seedy. We see a bedsheet-draped fainting couch. We think we know what’s going to happen. Thomas Novachek (played by Rusty Sneary), a playwright and novice director, sifts through a stack of head shots, exhausted after a day of auditions for his female lead. He’s directing his own adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, a provocative 19th-century novel by the literary father of masochism. He needs a modern noblewoman: someone sexy but smart, adventurous yet modest and refined. Lightning flashes, the prison-issue overhead fluorescents flicker, and Vanda (Vanessa Severo) bursts into the room, soaking wet and hours late for her audition. She shoves a lean, rain-drenched résumé into Thomas’ hands, tumbles into a frenzied and expletive-colored rant about a creep on the train, then whips off thigh), and she’s a fantastic listener, fully her raincoat to show that she has come dressed present and reactive in each moment. for the part: sheer black bustier, matching garHer pyrotechnic Vanda might have overter belt, panties and stockings. shadowed another actor, but Sneary holds his “Can I run out and fill any prescriptions for own as the sensitive, serious playwright. It’s you?” Thomas asks her. a low-key performance but no less skilled; his She’s crass, imperious, fascinating. She Thomas asserts and wields shares a name with the power insidiously. The two play’s leading lady. And, as Venus in Fur have palpable stage chemisfar as Thomas is concerned, Through September 29 at the try, heating up the audition she couldn’t be more wrong Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main, room as they slip in and out for the part. 816-531-7529, of Thomas’ script, blurring From here, the Unicorn unicorntheatre.org the lines between audition Theatre’s production of and seduction. David Ives’ Venus in Fur The Tallest Tree Severo recently finished spins into a volatile dance in the Forest a stint as Aphrodite in the for dominance, a carnal Through September 28 at Living Room’s The Death game of cat and mouse the Kansas City Repertory of Cupid, and in some ways in which who is predator Theatre’s Copaken Stage, this feels like a reprise of that and who is prey remain un1 H&R Block Way, role. But Ives’ script resists certain. For all of Vanda’s 816-235-2700, kcrep.org a simplistic inversion from laughable blunders (she male domination to goddess assures Thomas that she Long Day’s Journey worship, offering characters was great as “Hedda GabInto Night more nuanced and humane. uh-ler”), she knows a little Through September 15 at When Thomas launches into too much to be so inept. Union Station’s H&R Block a bitter polemic against our She has every line of the City Stage, 30 West Pershing cultural obsession with rescript memorized, carries Road, 816-235-6222, ducing narratives to social an annotated and worn kcactors.org allegories (race, gender, copy of the source novel, class), Vanda accuses him and makes some curiously of absolving his play’s own sexist paradigms. prescient guesses about Thomas’ fiancée. The debate is heated, sounding at times like Severo is intoxicating as the capricious Ives arguing with himself. charmer, making Vanda’s f luctuations The technical elements are less nuanced between deranged loudmouth and selfthan the psyches, but that seems like a conpossessed seductress look effortless. Her scious choice. The casting room is a dreary comedic timing is note-perfect (“I’m usually beige dungeon, as degrading to Thomas as pretty demure and shit,” she tells Thomas, adjusting that garter belt against her inner the sexual roles he enacts. The lighting cues
are minimal, driven by Vanda’s rummages through the fuse box when she wants to control the mood. Sound designer Michael Heuer contributes subtle atmospheric effects to underscore the tension, and Georgianna Buchanan’s costumes complete Vanda’s transitions from modern mistress to 19th-century paramour. The alley-style seating gives the stage the feel of a boxing ring as the actors circle each other and spar. Ives and the Unicorn keep us guessing for 90 minutes. We’re never quite sure what’s around the next dramatic bend, and the chase is exhilarating. Not every puzzle about these characters gets solved, but the play packs an erotic charge. Maybe it’s my imagination, but the women in the audience seemed to saunter out of the theater with a little more confidence than when they’d come in.
TREE TOO TALL The Rep stumps for Paul Robeson.
he Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s world-premiere season opener takes on a formidable task: capturing the passions and politics of one of America’s most iconic performers, the rhapsodic musician, actor and social activist Paul Robeson. Developed with the Tectonic Theatre Project and directed by veteran Moises Kaufman, Daniel Beaty’s one-man The Tallest Tree in the Forest collates a series of short scenes and historical snapshots to piece together a dramatic timeline of Robeson’s life and work.
Left: Severo and Sneary spar. Above: Beaty as Paul Robeson We check in with Robeson at formative moments: his stint as the first African-American (and first-string linebacker) on the Rutgers football team, his marriage to chemist-turnedanthropologist Eslanda “Essie” Goode, his artistic rise through the Harlem Renaissance and onto the silver screen. There’s also his affair with actress Uta Hagen and his controversial support of the Soviet Union (and, later, his failure to denounce Stalin’s treatment of Russian Jews). The script doesn’t flinch from ugly realities, though the scattered approach paints Robeson as a victim of turbulent influences and competing ideologies. On the one hand, his father’s insistence that he show white folks he’s “grateful.” On the other, his fiery brother Reeve’s insistence that Paul “fight until the end,” that “if you have to go, take one with you.” Beaty’s range and athleticism are worthy of Robeson’s. He commands the stage with numerous postures and personas, shifting seamlessly between multiple roles — at times, playing three different characters in the same scene. His specificity keeps the play’s jumps in chronology and character from devolving into confusion. Each transition feels confident and precise, with Beaty furnishing even the most tertiary characters with their own distinct palettes of gesture, expression and inflection. Unfortunately, that variety and specificity don’t extend to Beaty’s portrayal of Robeson himself, when he can sound at times stilted, the voice of an icon instead of a man. We get occasional glimpses continued on page 15
september 12-18, 2013
The Pitch, September 12-18, 2013. Kansas City's Alternative Weekly.