It was Oscar Wilde who said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
The intellectually gifted and suffocatingly arrogant playwright Thomas Novachek seems to understand this oh so clearly. He is the author of a new play adapted from the 1870 novel “Venus in Furs.” Widely known as the book that inspired the term masochism, Novachek needs an actress for his piece. And not just any actress. He needs an actress who will challenge his authority. Seduce him, force him to see the character he wrote in ways he could not see himself.
After a slew of unsatisfactory auditioners, actress Vanda Jordan walks in. She is comfortable in her own skin, on the ditzy side, brash and oozes of sensuality. At first, he may not have bought into seeing her abilities. Yet as they continue to travel through a powerful, steamy reading while thunder crashes outside, insight is gleaned, and power is gained.
This pas de deux of a play which these character inhabit is playwright David Ives piece “Venus in Fur.” The show opens Saturday at the San Jose Stage Company, featuring two Stage veterans – Johnny Moreno and Allison F. Rich. Both Rich and Moreno have worked together closely before, in shows such as “The Rainmaker” and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Three Penny Opera.” But the intimacy in those shows pale in comparison to the amount of trust and precision required to bring Thomas and Vanda to life. So much of the success of the play is based on how willing the actors are to take strong risks. For Rich and Moreno, guided by director Kimberly Mohne Hill, this is not an issue in the slightest.
“What’s awesome to me is how much we can trust each other,” said Rich. “(Kimberly) really encourages us to come in and play, experiment and make bold choices. So much has to do with being able to trust.”
Moreno shared a story of Rich inadvertently removing a piece of clothing in rehearsal that wasn’t expected. In many rehearsals, laughs might have been had and a pause might have been taken. Yet the two seasoned pros turned it into a moment of growth with razor sharp focus.
“What keeps it fresh for us is having that comfort with each other to come in and try something new,” said Moreno. “When that certain piece of clothing was removed, we went for it as characters. I was completely surprised that this is the level we are at, where we can see how each other reacts and deal with it in character.”
“Venus in Fur” is a play loaded with levels. There is the obvious power struggle between the two, yet the play also works on a level that looks at a world many actors will connect to – the horrible, inhumane process known as the audition.
“I’ve clearly been part of plenty sour auditions,” said Rich. “For the last year or so, I’ve been serving as a casting director, so being on the other side of the table for plenty of auditions and have seen the whole spectrum of how people audition. I’ve been able to witness what works, what doesn’t work, and if an actor succeeds or crashes and burns.
“In essence, the play makes fun of all that. People in the theatre are going to enjoy that part.”
Moreno does not enjoy that part.
“Honestly, I avoid having to audition as much as possible,” said Moreno. “It’s a terrifying experience for anybody in that room. Allison does a great job to reenact that process.”
For Rich, that process includes not wearing much. It does not take long for the action to head into a place where Rich finds herself in her underwear. Such a distinct level of vulnerability is a challenge she embraces fully.
“The first time I read the play, I was knocked on my ass as to how much I enjoyed it and how thrilling it was,” said Rich. “I knew I had to play this part, and it is one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever taken on. I was up for the challenge and was excited for it, beyond excited.”
To that end, Moreno certainly carries a level of pride towards San Jose Stage, a company who has developed a reputation for risk taking, and consistently producing shows that throw safety out the window. “Venus in Fur” is another in that line.
“San Jose Stage has never shied away from the controversial,” said Moreno. “They are pushing the envelope and doing what theatre is supposed to do.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Jose Stage Company presents “Venus in Fur”
Written by David Ives
Featuring Johnny Moreno and Allison F. Rich
Directed by Kimberly Mohne Hill
Through March 1st
San Jose Stage Company
490 S. First Street
San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $25 – $65
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org