The 19th-century Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch does not usually spring to mind when we hear the word he inadvertently contributed to the language: masochism. He also does not appear in Venus in Fur, Southern Rep's current offering at the Contemporary Art Center, but he is the work's presiding spirit.
The play begins in a drab rehearsal studio. Talking on his cellphone, Thomas (Todd d'Amour) complains that the actresses who have auditioned for his play are all hopeless. His play is an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs.
An attractive scatterbrained woman named Vanda (Veronica Russell) enters. Curiously, Vanda also is the name of the lead character in both Thomas' play and Sacher-Masoch's novella.
Vanda says her real name is Wanda, but she's called Vanda. She's mostly concerned about the rainstorm that has made her late and soaked her. Set designer Jason Kirkpatrick brilliantly presents the rainstorm as water running down the long studio windows amid thunder and lightning.
The isolation of the studio during a ferocious storm creates a space somewhere between the mundane and the fantastic. The play begins as though it has both feet on the ground and zooms off to psychosexual realms that stretch plausibility to the limit. Director Aimee Hayes guides these two remarkable actors with a sure hand, and they keep the audience riveted.
Vanda wants to read for the part, but Thomas says the actor who reads the male role is gone. Vanda convinces Thomas to read the role, and when she drops her raincoat, we see she's wearing a corset, tight black leather skirt and high heels. Then she sheds the skirt.
The action starts sliding into fantasyland. It turns out Vanda knows precisely who Sacher-Masoch was and has read Venus in Furs. In fact, she knows Thomas' play by heart. Gradually, she reverses the roles, taking control from the all-powerful playwright/director.
Power changes hands, gender gets bent and there are times when we can't tell if the actors are meant to be playing the script or improvising on it. There's also a point about feminism and women seizing power in the mix.
There is considerable humor, the performers are very strong, and the raging storm adds a touch of magic to the eerie transformations. You might want to step out of your comfort zone and give it a try. — DALT WONK