Review: San Jose Stage’s ‘Venus in Fur’ a delicious pas de deux

Allison F. Rich plays Vanda Jordan in "Venus in Fur" at San Jose Stage Company through March 1st. (Photo by Dave Lepori)

Allison F. Rich plays Vanda Jordan in “Venus in Fur” at San Jose Stage Company through March 1st. (Photo by Dave Lepori)

Thomas Novachek doesn’t waste any time with his critique of actresses today.

They are self-absorbed. Lacking of skill. And not just acting skill, but skill of life.

Shortly after sharing his feelings on the phone with a friend after a dizzying day of craptastic auditioners, into his audition room walks Vanda Jordan. She is wholly voluptuous, and a ditz of the highest order. Method acting can be one way to describe her approach, but method costuming may be more apropos.

What follows is a highly skilled pas de deux between both Thomas and Vanda, one that sees a power held firmly by Thomas slowly wrested away as they navigate a reading together. Hers is a powerful challenge that makes him look at everything his play stands for. The sexism. The misogyny. Simple cold reads turn into challenging scene study. To change the light is to change the mood. And simple requests become vicious demands.

A sensual pas de deux between Thomas (Johnny Moreno) and Vanda (Allison F. Rich) takes place in "Venus in Fur," through March 1st at San Jose Stage Company. (Photo by Dave Lepori)

A sensual pas de deux between Thomas (Johnny Moreno) and Vanda (Allison F. Rich) takes place in “Venus in Fur.” (Photo by Dave Lepori)

San Jose Stage Company’s production of “Venus in Fur” is delicious. The play functions on multiple levels, with each actor bouncing in and out fluidly of various styles, showcasing sweetly the range each actor possesses.

Those actors are Bay Area veterans Allison F. Rich and Johnny Moreno. Their pairing is one that is not unique to this production, but rooted in history, having played opposite each other in San Jose Stage productions such as “The Rainmaker” and “The Threepenny Opera.”

It is common for playwrights to live on an island. They sit in rooms, in offices, and inhabit the world of their characters, almost diving through their paper to see how these people live, breathe and feel. And Thomas is extremely confident in what he wrote and the characters he developed, until he is challenged. For Thomas, his writing is based on the book “Venus in Furs,” the story penned by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in 1870, widely known as the story that inspired the phenomenon of sadomasochism. Despite the fact that it is considered a classic text, Vanda is not having any of it. It’s sexist and completely inappropriate.

Yet this is frustrating and problematic for Thomas. He hides behind what he believes, which is that classics cannot be inappropriate. Surely, their ideas may be archaic. But these are tales written by names like Euripides and Aeschylus, men among the pantheon of those who invented theatre.

None of that matters to Vanda. She is rooted in goddesses like Aphrodite. She embodies all that a woman is. And Thomas needs to understand this.

Director Kimberly Mohne Hill unequivocally understands that structurally, Rich’s character drives the action. And if you have a less than stellar actor in this role, this would be problematic. This is certainly not the case here. Mohne Hill has Rich, a woman who is most effective in her fluidity, moving in and out of the different moments and styles of the play. Rich does this masterfully, and has a phenomenal range to work with. She possesses the ability to go from playful acting hopeful, to demanding vixen to goddess of love. Stylistically, Rich is in her element.

Moreno certainly does his job as a devout listener, building each reaction from what Rich gives him to work with, which is a lot. Despite so many good moments, there were certainly times where I felt his discovery was lacking, namely some of his phone conversations.

What cannot be denied is that both actors connect in many powerful ways. What is always exciting is seeing how risk taking is driven by a text that has lots of richness to it. These deep connections led to some powerful moments.

Take one specific moment as an example, where Vanda demands that Thomas call his fiancé to say he is not coming home. Mohne Hill paces this tense moment beautifully. Notice how this is a process that requires the utmost connection between the two principals. They lock eyes, they drive their emotions. And ultimately, they make a strong, bold choice.

The play is full of strong bold choices. And in any great pas de deux, there is an intricate beginning, compelling middle and powerful end. “Venus in Fur” takes its audience on a journey where each of these components are simply delicious.

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
The Word: So many delicious moments between two highly skilled actors makes for a compelling story rooted in the classics.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
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

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