A Lie of the Mind. Thundery weather and a voice in the darkness: At the very beginning of A Lie of the Mind, Jake is on the phone telling his brother Frankie that he's killed his wife. Over his brother's protests, Frankie insists on visiting his sister-in-law to discover her condition. This is our introduction to two hideously dysfunctional families, as the action moves from Beth's childhood home to Jake's and back again. We soon discover that Beth is not dead, but terribly hurt. And Frankie gets shot through the thigh for his peacemaking efforts. Although these families are very different, on some essential level they're the same. There's vicious rivalry in both, terrible cruelty — both intentional and the result of pure, blind idiocy — and also a very occasional moment of unexpected tenderness. The plot unfolds with recurring motifs: living people who think they're dead; urgent messages that never get conveyed; an interchangeability of personality. Beth falls for Frankie because when he speaks she hears Jake's voice; her brother Mike savages him because as far as he's concerned one brother's as good — or as bad — as another. When we first see Mike, he's tending gently to his sister; soon, his actions will be deeply hurtful to her. Jake's mother, Lorraine, and sister Sally have no use for each other: When Jake's around, Sally's invisible and worse to sickeningly solicitous Lorraine — until the two women come together at the end of the play in a moment of wildly destructive affirmation. This production is a workmanlike effort that communicates at least an outline of the long, troubling original. But the production lacks sharpness, specificity, vision. And though there's talent in the cast, few of the actors seem to have searched for subtlety and nuance in their characters, and some are unsuited to their roles. Presented by the Bug Theatre through June 1, 3654 Navajo Street, 303-477-5977, bugtheatre.org. Reviewed May 22.
Venus in Fur. The setting is the kind of rehearsal room every performer is familiar with: dusty and relatively bare, the windows grimy and patched over, an ancient fan rotating overhead. Slap-bang in the middle, though, there's a red velvet divan. Subtle shifts of light change the feel of the place periodically; it goes from being innocuous to feeling like those underground dungeons that leach the souls from human beings. Thomas is the author of a play called — like this play we're seeing — Venus in Fur, based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's nineteenth-century erotic novel, Venus in Furs. He wants to direct it himself because — irony of ironies — he requires control over his material. It's the end of the day, and he's on the phone to his fiancée describing the actors who have auditioned for the key role of Wanda with cool disdain. Enter Vanda — and the name's similarity to his character's is no coincidence. She flies in holding a broken umbrella and reciting a litany of complaints. She knows she's late, she says, but please, please let her audition. Thomas has no interest in her, but she's very persistent, and after a while, they start reading the play together. Now Vanda's demeanor changes and her accent becomes refined. Although she claims only to have glanced at the script on her way over, it's soon evident she knows it well and has also read the original novel. You know where this is going. Vanda is going to dominate Thomas physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, artistically. The only question is how she's going to do it. And why. At times Vanda seems to be a feminist who sees the play as an insult to all women. She's also incensed about the routine power struggle between directors and actors, particularly female actors. But maybe there's something stranger — maybe even something metaphysical — going on. Venus in Fur has been praised for its many levels of meaning, the constant shifts between reality and unreality. But the action gets repetitive after a while. You keep waiting for something that will change the trajectory — a reversal, a refutation, a shock or surprise — but it never comes. And despite all the talk of whipping and boot kissing, there isn't anything erotic — or even very human — about the evening. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 14, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org. Reviewed May 15.