Michael Bakkensen as Thomas and Nicole Rodenburg as Vanda.

Image: Jann Whaley

As the lights went down for Venus in Fur—David Ives’s celebrated, Tony Award-winning comedy—we couldn’t help but spot Lynn Wyatt, perennial Alley opening night attendee, in the shadows of the first row—a sort of Venus in blur, if you will. 

A dependable vision in black and platinum, yet customized for the night in question (i.e., fishnet anklets), Wyatt’s presence was ever-companionable to an evening devoted to the topic of sadomasochism, or so it seemed to us, the world of Houston society being something of a sadomasochistic exercise in itself. In any event, she was at all times attentive, her head darting back and forth over the proceedings like a goldfinch on a wire.

With all due respect, however, Wyatt was not the most exotic bird we would see that evening. Swooping down with a thunderclap a mere five minutes into it was Vanda, also known as the co-lead in Ives’s play, also known as Nicole Rodenburg, an actress of remarkable talent and equally remarkable beauty. There is no creature in all of bird land that possesses such a combination of intelligence, fire, ebullience, danger, and plumage. She is matchless, and we are quite simply in love with her.

Call it hyperbole if you want, but unless Rodenburg has some sort of hypnotic command over theater critics (altogether possible, admittedly), she is giving a performance for the ages, or at least one we haven’t seen in ages, a comic tour-de-force that is by turns hilarious and dark, balletic and horsey, terrifying and soft, S and M. As an actress desperate to land a part in a dramatic adaptation of Venus in Furs, the 1870 novella by masochism namesake Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Rodenburg bursts through the doors of a rehearsal studio, profusely apologizing to the playwright-director whose casting call she is late for. The playwright, meanwhile, Thomas (Michael Bakkensen), has just spent a long and fruitless day auditioning actresses. To him, sitting through yet another one sounds as appetizing as dental work.

We’ll grant you that the set-up sounds unpromising, and in truth, the opening interactions between Vanda and Thomas have a certain sitcom quality to them. But part of Ives’ alchemical brilliance here lies in the way he convinces us that these stock figures (struggling actress forever at loose ends, buttoned-down and self-important writer) are actually complex ones who hide behind their stock elements and/or employ them to advantage. From the moment Vanda’s audition begins and she slips into the role of a nineteenth-century Russian countess, it’s clear that there’s far more to the actress than meets the eye. The same is true of Thomas, for whom the simple act of reading his own words aloud—something he confesses he’s never done before—initiates a shedding of the carapace, as well as a winning stint as a European aristocrat hell-bent on submitting to the countess. 

The conflicts metamorphose too as Ives’ 90-minute play trips along, from will he let her audition to will he fall under her spell to who will submit to the other, and on and on. And under Brandon Weinbrenner’s superb direction, it soon becomes clear that Vanda and Thomas are engaged in something of a four-dimensional chess match whose axes are actress/playwright, slave/dominatrix, comic/tragic, and man/woman.   

The only common thread uniting them is the quality of Rodenburg’s and Bakkensen’s work, which is outstanding in isolation and positively earthshattering in tandem. Watch how carefully each observes the other, how his condescension makes the lids of her saucer-ish eyes lower to half-mast, her downturned lips heave with the promise of invective. Watch the wonderment spread across the playwright’s face when he hears his words come to life for the first time. And watch too for the shiver-inducing moments—they multiply as the play builds to a climax—when Thomas and Vanda touch, when he zips up her costume, say, or she ruffles his hair. This is acting of the highest caliber in a play of singular comic appeal, in an Alley production of utter excellence.

Oh, and Lynn Wyatt seemed to like it too, insofar as we could tell.

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