Flying Anvil's 'Venus in Fur' Adds to an Already Thriving Theater Scene

Sunday afternoons on Gay Street aren't what they used to be.

At the Tennessee Theatre this past Sunday afternoon was Knoxville Opera's final performance of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, an inventive production of one of the most unusual operas in the standard repertoire, devils and robots in a giant bar with a light glaze of steampunk. Simultaneously, at Theatre Knoxville, on North Gay, was Deathtrap, a harrowing classic. But here's what was new: a couple more blocks even farther north, at 525 N. Gay St., was a sneak peak at fledgling troupe Flying Anvil's first proper production, Venus in Fur.

For whatever it indicates about the city of Knoxville, all three of them deal with erotic obsession and raise unsettling questions about whether we can trust the idea of identity.

Flying Anvil is just north of Interstate 40, about two blocks from Theatre Knoxville. Can North Gay's two offbeat theaters constitute a theater district? It's fun to think so. This area once hosted a space where small circuses and other spectacles just unloaded from the train drew downtown crowds. Not far from here, in 1897, thousands paid a dime each to behold a 40-ton dead whale.

The Flying Anvil space is an old automobile showroom, and we can only hope it works into a permanent thing. It's a renovated split-level space with skylights and a broad terrazzo floor and a ramp leading up to a sort of mezzanine. The simple stage faces bleachers that would seat about 80. Squint your eyes, and the layout might make you think of it as a small, modernist reflection of an old-world opera house. It's as elegant as you can get with bleachers and folding chairs.

Independent community theater troupes are good sports about making do with whatever nook or cranny they're allowed, but by community-theater standards this is deluxe. It reminds me a little of Bearden's lamented Black Box. And Venus in Fur seems the perfect opening: a promise, or maybe a warning, about what Flying Anvil means to do here in months and years to come.

Jayne Morgan, one of Knoxville's best-seasoned actors—and, with Staci Swedeen, half of the thespian conspiracy known as Flying Anvil—directs David Ives' one-act play. Venus in Fur is brand new, by middle-America standards. It opened off Broadway just three years ago, and has caused a stir in bigger theaters since then. It is, on one level, a distillation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel of the same name (with references to Lou Reed's 1967 song, which is also based on that novel).

There are only two actors, and we do not wish for more. J.D. Sizemore plays Thomas, a weary, low-key writer/director. Carolyn Corley plays Vanda, a seemingly scatterbrained aspiring actress. They're antagonistic at first. A half-hour in, if you overlook the fact that Corley enters wearing black leather and a dog collar, you'll think you're watching a clever refreshment of the beloved screwball comedy. But in the space of an hour or so, their relationship evolves in complex ways, goaded on by the alter egos in the script they're ostensibly working with.

The audition/rehearsal premise seems less and less relevant as the play unfolds. There's something else going on here. Without Thomas' permission, Vanda becomes the focus of his life.

As the two work, more and more feverishly, both slip in and out of characters. We get used to the idea that there aren't just two, but four distinct characters on stage. By the time the play's over, we start to suspect maybe there are even more than that.

Neither actor is necessarily familiar to theatergoers who favor only the comfortable-seat venues, but Corley, who's also director of Wilde Thyme Players, was a standout in another high-energy role in a Tennessee Stage Company production last year. Vanda is a demanding role, and she's up to it with comic aplomb, shifting between tones and accents. The part within a part gives her just enough time to forget that the actor, and the character, are both playing a role, and more than once the transition startles us into a guffaw.

The theme, technically, concerns sadomasochism, but saying that can be misleading. The script and the performances deftly bring out some provocative paradoxes of romantic devotion that might resonate even to those old-fashioned sorts who prefer not to be whipped. Just 90 minutes after they meet, there's a powerfully erotic tension between the two that makes a stage kiss seem unnecessary and maybe irrelevant.

It's all fairly fascinating, and a worthy baptism of an interesting new space. You don't expect to witness special effects in community theater, but a surprise at the end is exhilarating.