If there is any one quality that embodies the productions that The Necessary Theatre stage—and most of these plays are directed by cofounder Bart Guingona—it is that they make you think.
They provoke you into a serious consideration of things, sometimes uncomfortably so. They seduce, lure or throw you out of your intellectual haven to bring you to dark places that challenge your paradigms and upset your mental sacred cows.
That’s the positive side of the coin. The negative side is, more often than not, the plays are staged for only one weekend. And by the time you leave the theater, enthused, running on the mental adrenaline that the material has infused you with and eager to share your experience with kindred spirits, the play’s run is over. If there is enough post-production word of mouth, then there might be a rerun months down the line.
But then again, Guingona and his colleagues know the risks they take in selecting their material. The choices typically don’t deal with “safe” or “cute” subjects and are not “commercial.” Fortunately, a section of the Philippine theater audience has acquired a taste for the kind of plays that TNT produces, which in turn has made reruns of them possible.
“Venus in Fur,” Guingona’s latest production, demands a rerun. There was never a dull moment in its two-hour no-intermission performance time. There were only two actors performing on a minimalist stage, with only their delivery, characterization, interplay and the brilliance of David Ives’ dialogue to capture and keep the audience’s attention.
Every line counted. Every shift in nuance spoke volumes. There were multiple layers in the subjects being discussed, such that the play requires at least a second viewing for one to fully appreciate and comprehend all its facets.
To paraphrase a description by onstage playwright Thomas (David Bianco), although he was speaking of the play he had written (and not the real one his character is situated in): The material cannot be confined to simply another neatly categorized social phenomenon such as, say, child abuse.
Without belittling that subject, the play that Thomas has adopted from a bestseller—and which he is compelled to re-enact with would-be actress Vanda (Jennifer Blair-Bianco, David’s wife in real life)—is complex, rooted in a wide range of subjects from psychology and sociology to sexual behavior, politics and even mythology.
Yet, balancing all this is the history behind the play and the script. The plot is based on the life of Austrian writer and journalist Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1905)—from whose name the term “masochism” was coined—who wrote a novella called “Venus in Furs.” When he was in his mid-30s, Sacher-Masoch shed off his nobleman trappings and privileges to enter voluntarily into a contract of indenture (or slavery) with his mistress, the Baroness Fanny Pistor.
For six months, he became her servant, endured her abuses, slept in the servant’s quarters, and rode third-class during their travels. He went to the extent of adopting a servant’s name. In return—and probably the one fetish and turn-on he asked from her—the Baroness would always wear fur, especially when she was lashing out at him during her cruel moods.
This bit of history, which laid the groundwork for a now well-known sexual predilection (“Fifty Shades of Grey,” anyone?) is the basis of the script that fictional character Thomas is writing. The audience slowly enters this world, enraptured by the play-within-the-play created by Ives. A reluctant Thomas is won over into auditioning Vonda, whose professed motivation is just to get a job at any cost.
The title of his play and the title of the real-life book are near-identical, helping to blur the distinction in the audience’s mind. That it is also the title of the real-life play that the audience is watching shatters the boundaries even more.
The supposed audition crosses over into forbidden territory, and the professional becomes mired in the personal. Thomas supposedly reads for the masochistic doctor who represents Sacher-Masoch. Vonda is supposedly trying out for the role of the dominant mistress, who is both being seduced and dominated by him.
But the subject matter cuts too deep for both of them, and pretty soon individual motivations are laid bare, hidden wounds are brought screaming to the surface—and both Thomas and Vonda find that they have more in common with the fictional characters they are playing. When playtime threatens to end, they get, in fact, drawn into almost incarnating their fictional counterparts.
There are no easy answers here, and ultimately, beyond their behavior or biases, it is the identities of the characters and what they represent that are placed on the line. Positions endlessly shift as the characters try to grab power—sexual, psychological, professional. And as both of them wrestle as to which part of the totem pole they belong to, a bit of gender-bending is cleverly thrown into the mix.
In TNT’s production, the intimacy offered by the Tanghalang Batute stage in the Cultural Center of the Philippines pushed the audience into the proceedings even further. With just a few pieces of furniture, a darkened stage and unobtrusive but strategic lighting, the fourth wall all but vanished, and the audience became a voyeur to what’s happening on stage.
Guingona kept his two characters at razor’s edge, biting, snarling and romancing each other—sometimes as their real selves (Thomas and Vonda), or as the doctor and his mistress. Characterizations shifted at the turn of a line, and sometimes, they tended to overwhelm each other, challenging the audience to identify which persona was actually breathing out his or her demons on stage.
The Biancos—David and Jennifer—attacked their roles head-on, and the depth and bravura they gave their performances made one wish they should be seen more often in other plays. Their chemistry onstage was palpable and unmistakable, making it easy for Guingona to use it to the play’s advantage.
Still, the loudest applause should go to Jennifer for the range and diversity of characterization she brought to her various personae: the bratty, streetwise and crass second-rate actress; the insecure ingénue; the dominatrix beginning to discover her power; and the unseen mysterious persona who Thomas detects is pulling more than strings behind the scene.
The pace and the performances sustained the momentum, and the play justifiably ended with a bang, not a whimper. It also left more questions than answers.
The material—and thanks in no small measure to the director and actors who brought it to life—had a dark seductive power of its own, leaving the audience salivating for a second showing.