The Venus Theatre on C Street opened its door to spring last week with the first installation in artistic director Deborah Randall's Sweet Sixteen: Groovy Young Things season when "Fur" — a darkly comedic one-act written by award-winning librettist and playwright Migdalia Cruz — opened March 17.
The dark comedy tells the story of a hirsute woman imprisoned in a cage in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles as a loosely reinvented take on Beauty and the Beast. The little seen work easily fits Randall's penchant for staging "wild and unapologetic theater" and is the 55th "woman empowered" script performed at Venus.
Previously produced in the U.S. and abroad with showings in Puerto Rico, Athens and Edinburgh, "Fur" had its premiere at the Chicago Theater Company in 1995 and will be featured at the Hero Theatre in Los Angeles next month.
In her director's notes, Randall likens the script to a feminist parable that goes to extremes. Cruz — who has written more than 55 works for stage including musical theater and opera — has much more than a simple fairy tale in mind.
The ride begins when Grant Cloyd as Michael — a pet shop owner with an animal fetish — appears. Michael has purchased Citrona to be his bride. Hauling a large sack onstage and struggling to place it in the cage, he steps back, locks the cage and the object of his desire crawls out.
Randall portrays the inimitable Citrona, a humping, beastly young woman who will only eat raw meat. As Michael attempts to tame and woo her with water, he hires Nema (Karin Rosnizeck), an animal trapper, to bring Citrona food.
But, alas, Citrona lusts for pretty Nema; and Nema fancies herself in love with Michael. Passions run deep and earthy in this raw love triangle; and Cruz tells the wild tale with fresh, lyrical and sometimes gross language in a chaotic diapason of words and imagery.
In one scene, for instance, Nema sweetly defines a poem as "a family of words that says what's in your heart." In another, Citrona says, "You pick up your lover's vomit and you treat it like a jewel."
And when Michael asks Citrona what she wants, she candidly replies, "Something pink."
Symbolically, Citrona makes wistful references to white sheets and white light; and Cloyd's Michael, who is the least sympathetic character if not a villain, wears white linen.
Citrona sings lyrics from the Beatles' "Yes It Is" ("Please don't wear red tonight…") to Nema as she viciously devours a small animal.
The story unravels on a black and metallic set designed by Amy Belschner Rhodes. A large steel cage takes up one side of the stage across from narrow industrial steel platforms on the other. Rhodes also designed the lighting.
Beatles music plays during the preshow; per Cruz's script Beatles songs will drive transitions throughout the performance along with the other sound effects designed by Neil McFadden.
Lewis Shaw is credited with fight choreography with assistance from Mallory Shear, and Randall designed costumes and props.
As Citrona, Randall appears covered in coarse black hair showing some mild frontal nudity. Michael wears plantation-style white linen, while Nena dresses more like a debutante than an animal trapper.
Animal versus human sexuality, the nature of life and death, suicide, twisted love, unrequited marriage proposals — a ping pong game of preternatural yearnings pushes to the edge of what audience members can follow.
But the chaos is tightly directed here by Randall; her pace and timing flow like music. And all three of the actors immerse themselves deeply and believably into their respective roles to deliver fine performances.
As Citrona, Randall's childlike nature at times evokes sympathy for a character whose unbridled passions are really quite horrid as she reveals the depths of which she is capable.
Rosnizeck also manages to portray a sort of innocence; Nema will do anything for what she perceives as love. In one horrifying instance, she describes how she gently caresses small animals into acquiescence just before snapping their necks.
An intense work that leans more heavily toward tragedy than comedy (this fairy tale doesn't end well), "Fur" has its moments of comic relief. The funniest one occurs when Nema, dressed all in red, and Michael strike a Flamenco pose.
"Fur" continues weekends through April 10 at the Venus Theatre, 21 C St., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; with matinees at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is $20. For tickets or more information, go to venustheatre.org