A script and a whip take center stage at this year’s Aspen Fringe Festival.
The centerpiece of the four-day program is David Ives’ Tony-nominated masochistic sex comedy, “Venus in Fur.”
“You think ‘Fringe Festival,’ and you think ‘Out of the mainstream,’ and I don’t think you would see this on any other stage in the valley,” said director Mike Monroney.
The play itself focuses on a theater director, Thomas Novachek, attempting to stage an adaption of the 1870 German novel, “Venus in Furs,” a book that documents a man’s experiences with what we’d today call a domination fetish. As Novacheck complains about the shortcomings of the women he’s auditioned, a new actress, Vanda, barges in and forces him to read the script with her, and then takes on a dominant role that mirrors the relationships in the book.
What follows is a complex play-within-a-play that wrests humor out of its kinky premise. Fringe Fest co-founder David Ledingham describes it as “an erotic thriller and a comedy that’s also kind of fantastical.”
“It’s like an onion,” added Monroney. “There’s layer upon layer upon layer. It’s a fascinating play. … Not only does (Ives) do this in a literate and cerebral way, but he finds a way to make it funny.”
Ledingham stars as Novacheck, with Nikki Boxer — who most recently played Madame Thenardier in Theatre Aspen’s 2013 production of “Les Miserables” — as Vanda. The local creative team is a departure for Fringe Fest, which in recent years has brought in actors and directors from elsewhere to stage plays like “Red” and “An Iliad.”
The 2011 Broadway production of “Venus in Fur” drew Tony nominations for Best Play and Best Actress. Since then, it’s improbably gone on to become one of the most widely produced plays in the United States, with about 20 productions currently running. It’s also been adapted into a feature film by Roman Polanski, set for a limited summer release.
Its proliferation in regional theaters, suggests Monroney, is a testament to how good the play is, but also to its small scale. With two main characters, two acts and no complicated sets required, it’s easy to put on stage.
Capturing the depth of its ideas and characters, Monroney adds, is far more complicated.
“From a technical level, not on a dramatic level, its relatively easy to do,” he said. “It’s two people and a simple set.”
Simplicity was key for the Fringe Festival this year, as ongoing renovations at the Aspen District Theatre necessitated a move to the smaller Aspen High School Black Box Theatre.
Monroney, Boxer and Ledingham rehearsed the play for three weeks, finding new layers in Ives’ text as they went. None of the Fringe team have seen another production of “Venus in Fur,” allowing them to find their own interpretation and base their version on a deep reading of the text.
“You could work on it forever and never feel like you’ve gotten it, because there’s so much there,” said Boxer. “When you read the book it creeps you out. But David Ives takes it and puts a modern twist on it, and it’s fantastic.”
The “Venus in Fur” performances Saturday and Sunday are bracketed by a dance performance by New York’s MoralesDance on Friday and a reading of a new play, “The Last Outlaw,” on Monday.
Fringe Fest’s dance program director Adrianna Thompson describes MoralesDance’s program as “Bob Fosse-style” modern dance.
Led by Tony Morales, a former dance partner of Thompson’s during her career as a dancer and choreographer in New York, the program features four dancers. Among them is Aspenite Cassie Lewis, who has been dancing with the prestigious Alvin Ailey School and studying at Fordham University since graduating from Aspen High School in 2012. As a child, she studied under Thompson at Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
As in past years, the festival closes with a reading of a play in progress, featuring local actors. This year’s selection, “The Last Outlaw,” by Donald Sage Mackay, is based on the life of Montana outlaw Earl Durand.
Durand lived off the land and became a folk hero of the 1930s, after he was jailed for poaching an elk. Durand escaped from jail and led federal authorities on a manhunt through the Tetons.
“It became a sensationalized national story about this mountain man on the loose in Wyoming and whether he was a hero or a criminal,” explained Ledingham.
Mackay has been working on the play over the last week with a cast of veteran local actors, including Lee Sullivan and Eileen Seeley. Local musician and “Bluegrass with Mustard” host Dan Sadowsky is providing a traditional folk and Americana score for the show. The story it tells is a timely one, Ledingham notes, as the debate about Durand in thes’30s hit many of the same notes as this year’s controversy over Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s standoff with federal authorities over grazing permits.
“The themes touch on the death of the Wild West and the government coming in and encroaching on people’s rights,” Ledingham said.