Venus in Fur, now at ACT, is an exercise in endurance for actors. The two characters, director Thomas (Henry Clarke) and actor Vanda (Brenda Meaney), never get to leave the stage for the show's running time, and they are relieved by nary an entrance of another character, nor scene change, nor blackout. The set, by John Lee Beatty, also offers no distraction. It's an audition room that aptly reflects Thomas' status in the theater world. Unadorned, and even a bit dingy, it's still spacious enough to reflect his high opinion of himself, one that he persuades others to share, one that the play devilishly unravels.
Venus in Fur is best known as the comedy that elevated the then-unknown actor Nina Arianda to Broadway stardom, garnering her a Tony Award for one of her first major professional theater appearances. But in this production, directed by Casey Strangl, if Clarke and Meaney are mostly fine, sometimes very fine, but never noteworthy, David Ives' script holds up as distinctive in its own right.
Thomas has been auditioning women (or "girls" as he often calls them) all day to play the "sexy slash intelligent" lead in the play he's written and is directing (a job combination that usually bodes ill), with little luck: "Most women who are 24 these days sound like six-year-olds on helium," he says.
When Vanda walks in, egregiously late and firing f-bombs as if from a machine gun, she seems the epitome of all Thomas has just said he hates: unschooled, juvenile. She's even brought a bear-sized sack of costumes and props to aid her, a big no-no in the casting world. Initially, the mechanics Ives assembles to keep her in the audition room clunk and sputter. But the conceit-laden opening quickly yields to a master class in dialogue.
Vanda is auditioning for an adaptation of Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name is the origin of the term masochism. Her initial machinations to not get kicked out — feigned ignorance here, a seizing of Thomas' vulnerability there — coupled with a suddenly affected stateliness delivered in a pitch-perfect Katherine Hepburn mid-Atlantic accent (is this all Thomas was looking for all day?), set the stage for her to bring the play-within-a-play's transgressive vision of sex and domination off the page and into the audition itself.
At first the pair is simply reveling in the unmediated joy of making artistic ideal reality. But slowly auditioner becomes auditionee, man becomes woman, the powerful gleefully becomes powerless. As the play approaches its dark, fantastical, and glorious twist, an insidious supernatural force creeps into Ives' taut storytelling, elevating this comedy to, if not a fully trailblazing satire, then one that's got real bite underneath its snap and sass.
Deceit also figures prominently in 99 Stock Production's and San Francisco State University's co-production of I Never Lie: The Pinocchio Project. Or, at least, the PR for the piece said deceit was supposed to figure prominently. The play, written and directed by Meredith Eden as her thesis project, purports to explore why we tell lies, but the bulk of this production features only six schoolboys (Derek Caplan, Andrew Chung, Tim Goble, James Mayagoitia, Hunter Ridenour, and Renzo Romero) playing make-believe to pass the time on a rainy day — rather low-stakes "lies."
When theater people talk about directing Chekhov, they often say one of the main challenges is to not let bored characters become boring. In this play, Eden spends about 20 minutes establishing that the characters are in fact bored — not much substance to prevent them from being also, well, boring. During this obscenely long stretch, as characters make up stories, many of them centered on the Pinocchio tale for no clear reason, the rules of the play's world are vexingly sloppy. A character who is feared as a stranger one moment suddenly becomes one of the group the next. Later, a character's unconsciousness is the central focus of one scene but then forgotten the next, even as he still lies on the floor, unmoving.
The production feels motivated by interesting design ideas — projecting video on an overturned table as a scene with which puppets can interact, having live actors become filmed projections when they disappear behind a wall — that the play became forced to reach by whatever means necessary. The ensemble, giddy enough to play with one another for a couple of hours, struggles under this lack of discipline, its energies fizzling into half-formed choices and bumbling attempts at easy laughs.
A line early in the play suggests it purports to subvert narrative storytelling. But to break theatrical rules, it helps to first have a good grasp of them.