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High Drama, Lustful Comedy:

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Venus in Fur
Cape Fear Playhouse • 613 Castle St.
May 30th-June 23rd, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.
Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $23-$25

SEX APPEAL: Anna Stromberg as Vanda and Mike O’Neil as Thomas in the debut of David Ives’ “Venus in Fur.”

SEX APPEAL: Anna Stromberg as Vanda and Mike O’Neil as Thomas in the debut of David Ives’ “Venus in Fur.”

Dominance. power. lust. paired together, these things can be lethal. Add masochism to the mix, and it can be an erotic tale filled with high drama, lustful comedy and sheer entertainment.

“Venus in Furs,” a novella written by Austrian journalist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (yes, for whom we get the term “masochism”), becomes the center of David Ives’ play, “Venus in Fur,” which debuted Off-Broadway at the Classic Stage Company on January 13th, 2010. Receiving its due on the main strip of Broadway in 2011, and continuing a 2012 run, local Imaginary Theater Company will be hosting its Wilmington debut at Big Dawg Productions’ Cape Fear Playhouse May 30th through June 23rd, Thursdays through Sundays.

Directed by Lee Lowrimore, “Venus in Fur” follows two individuals: Thomas, a playwright and director (Mike O’Neil), and an actress named Vanda (Anna Stromberg). Together, they propel themselves into an audition process of an adaptation of the classic Victorian sadomasochistic novel “Venus in Furs” (yes, with an “s”). Though Thomas is sure Vanda’s ditz eradicates her from the powerful seductiion required of the role, as the two read from the script, something happens. Power shifts, and each emerge quite differently than the first impressions they infer.

“A colleague here in Wilmington first told me about the play a couple of years ago,” Lowrimore tells encore. “It sounded fascinating, so I ordered a copy. It proved to be just as incredible as my friend’s description. The play explores power in relationships in a bold, funny, provocative and erotic way. Tremendous stuff.”

Though the book and play stand apart, the themes exposed remain similar. Ideas of power and relationships come to light, challenging the norm of what we as people expect of others.

“Certainly the masochism lands Thomas outside the bounds of traditional social mores,” O’Neil says. “But there are other times—when he is unnecessarily cruel to Vanda and speaks to her in ways that most people would find misogynist, offensive and unacceptable.”

To take on Vanda proves a challenge for Thomas. It also inspires her to turn up her own volume. “She is a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality, who is unabashedly herself,” Stromberg notes. “She knows what she wants and precisely how to get it. She is a pagan and an individual, and I think that can be terrifying to certain men.”

Each actor faces their own set of challenges in fulfilling his and her character’s personalities fully and emotionally. Stromberg and O’Neil are learning the dynamic pacing of these characters first-hand.

“[Vanda’s] operatic emotions shift on a dime, which provides many challenges, but has become my favorite part of playing her,” Stromberg says.

O’Neil agrees. He finds it thrilling to expose their fluctuations, to deeply consider their chemical reactions, and to showcase the “reality of the two people in the room and the audition/performance of the play within the play.”

“I certainly respect [Thomas’] passion, especially as it pertains to his work: his play,” O’Neil says. “I enjoy the journey he takes and his willingness to take it. Though it’s questionable as to whether he has complete control of all his choices.”

Stromberg finds the content’s handling of power and struggle unlike any she’s played before. “It definitely addresses issues of domination that I had never seen onstage,” she notes. “It comes down to exposing strength. Some women hide their strength because they fear disapproval; it’s not ladylike. This is a plea for people to understand that strength has many different names.”

O’Neil—who, along with Lowrimore and Dorothy Rankin, run Imaginary Theater Company—is used to wearing many hats as he works theatre productions around town. He will do so again by putting sound together for “Venus in Fur,” as well as taking on a lead role. Lowrimore designed the set and directed, while Rankin has been behind the costuming. Props and set-dressing are from Shane Fernando, with scenic work being done by Phil Cumber.

“Oddly, it takes as much time, money and effort to create a down-at-the-heels former sweat shop as it does a Victorian drawing room,” Lowrimore quips. “As a company, Imaginary Theater tries for two things with design: We work to serve the play and to make it look easy, as if everything simply had to happen the way it did.”

Though not salacious, the show’s content is definitely for mature audiences. The director says visually it’s akin to what one could see on summer vacation.

“It’s earthy, profane and provocative, and it has a beautiful woman onstage in her underwear,” he says, “but you’ll see more skin on the beach. It’s erotic, not lurid. It’s meant for an adult audience, with a lot of words you’ll never hear on TV.”

A story hinging on humor, mystery, passion and rage, “Venus in Fur” carries bucketfuls of emotions all humans have drawn from the well at some point or another in life. “If anything, most will probably understand how Thomas can fall under Vanda’s spell,” O’Neil remarks.

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