Sexual scenes on stage between two actors are never easy. So when the Tony Award-nominated play by David Ives, "Venus in Fur," called for a riding crop, black patent leather thigh-high boots, dog collars and a slap or two of S&M, a fetishist element was added to the challenge of being an actor.
But Liv Rooth and David Christopher Wells had an advantage to the psycho-sexual dynamic in the two-character production at Hartford's TheaterWorks, now playing through Nov. 11
Off stage, they are an engaged couple, with plans to marry next year at Rooth's hometown of New Orleans.
"We do work very well together so I wasn't worried about any of the psychological aspects of the play," says Rooth, who also played an often scantily clad actress in "Noises Off" at Hartford Stage and as an institutionalized Catharine Holly in Tennessee Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer" last year at the Westport Country Playhouse.
"If anything, it helps to have someone you really trust," says Rooth.
The couple worked on stage together twice before. The first time was when they met while doing a production of "Pride and Prejudice," in Rochester, NY. The Jane Austen material was hardly dicey stuff and their chartacters barely interacted on stage. "I scowled at you once," says Wells.
This summer they performed opposite each other in the British farce "Boeing-Boeing" at Vermont's Dorset Theatre. "We had a wonderful time doing that," says Rooth. "We didn't fight or anything."
That work's sex scenes are more of the cartoonish, door-slamming variety. But "Venus in Fur" is an erotically-charged comedy-fantasy that taps into a darker side of sex that could prove to be daunting for some actors.
In the Broadway production Nina Arianda won a Tony Award for her performance as Vanda, the ditzy actress who auditions for a sadistic director, played by Hugh Dancy. When she transforms herself into a kinky temptress in the play-within-a-play, the director finds himself on the other side of a different kind of powerplay.
Rooth, who has understudied Arianda on Broadway in both "Venus in Fur" and the revival of "Born Yesterday" (and went on to perform both roles), says she first had to decide whether she wanted to return to the role.
"But our friends kept on saying, 'You should do it together, you should do it together'," she says. "And we always knew that theaters around the country would be doing the play."
The actors auditioned separately for Rob Ruggiero, interim artistic director at TheaterWorks, who is staging the play.
"I immediately liked their work but I didn't know they were a couple at first," says Ruggiero.
When he did find out they were engaged, he says he paused to think of the casting implications "because of the nature of the relationship of the two characters in the play and its potency. I wondered, 'Oh, is this a good thing for someone who is about to be married?
"But I think there are mostly more advantages," he says. "There's an immediate trust level; there's a generosity in acting they give to each; and they bring a sense of immediate family to the production, which is all great. The other thing was, as a director, I always look for chemistry with your actors and here it meant sexual chemistry. It's often a roll of the dice in that kind of casting but in this case I didn't have to worry about the chemistry."
"I was joking," says Rooth, "that it would be hard to do this play with a person you're not attracted to. But there's no question that I find David wildly attractive so it kind of does allow us this freedom. It does feel like we're in the complicit partnership on stage.
"But it must be very hard for someone to jump into rehearsing this play with someone you don't know. I remember rehearsing with the other understudy in New York, Mark Alhadeff. I had met him once and all of a sudden I was lying on top of him. We got along and it was great, but with David it's so nice because we were able to skip that initial and awkward getting-to-know you period."
On the other hand, one could risk the excitement of sexual discovery if the couple is too familiar, says Wells. "You could potentially risk losing that newness but since we're in that 'engagement limbo' that actually helps."
Both actors wonder what relationships the play could spark between single actors in other productions because of the sexual heat of the play.
"I'm sure that's going to happen all around the country," says Rooth.
"I would advise to not to do this play if you're in a relationship that you have any hope in keeping," laughs Wells. "And God forbid, you do this play with someone you just didn't get along with."
Has the play opened up aspects of their own relationship?
"Wisely, we haven't spent too much time thinking about parallels with this play and our relationship," laughs Wells,
"Rob keeps joking that the leather, high-heeled boots and riding crop are going to disappear after the production," says Rooth.
"Oh, that might happen," says Wells. "We might steal the boots."
VENUS IN FUR is now playing and runs through Nov. 11 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St. in Hartford through Nov. 11. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 8 p.m. Some weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $63; student rush at $17. Information: 860-527-7838 and www.theaterworkshartford.org.
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