“Battle of the sexes.”
That phrase dates back to at least 1914, when the notorious filmmaker D.W. Griffith (he of “Birth of a Nation”) released a blatantly sexist film with that title. “Battle of the Sexes.”
Over the years, what that phrase means and how that particular battle is fought, has vastly evolved. Consider, for example, the enormous differences between Lerner and Lowe’s beloved 1956 musical “My Fair Lady,” and David Ives’ spicy 2011 comedy-drama “Venus in Fur.”
We begin with that last one.
Currently running at San Rafael’s Belrose Theater, directed by Carl Jordan and presented by Marin Onstage, ‘Venus in Fur’ is a two-person examination of sex, power and the pleasures of pain. There is a bit of light sadomasochism. There is leather and a dog collar.
And it’s hilarious.
When an off Broadway audition is crashed, late, by a scattered, goofy mess of an actress—excellently played by Melissa Claire, who plays the character as alternately ditzy, sexy and scary—she convinces the frustrated playwright-director—Tyler McKenna, quite good in a tough role—to let her audition. At first she seems totally unprepared.
But she seems to know the play by heart, even though the script has not yet been distributed. And she seems to know quite a bit about the 1870 novel on which the new play is based, a novel written by the man for whom the term “masochism” was named. What follows is a series of escalating power trips and challenges and sexual intimidation, in which the rules, and the roles, change several times.
Very adult, very funny, and full of surprises, this is a play designed, in part, to make you rethink how women are traditionally portrayed in theater and literature.
Which brings us to ‘My Fair Lady,’ now playing at 6th Street Playhouse.
Much tamer, compared to “Venus in Fur,” and clearly the product of an early era, the beloved musical ‘My Fair Lady’ was itself a taming-down of G.B. Shaw’s furious social critique ‘Pygmalion.’ It features some of the best songs ever written for the stage—‘Wouldn’t it be Loverly,’ ‘With a Little bit of Luck,’ ‘I Could Have Danced All Night,’ ‘The Street Where You Live,’ ‘I’m getting Married in the Morning.’
Impressively sung by a strong-voiced cast—who are somewhat poorly supported by a spotty orchestra. The production’s pleasures include a marvelous Norman Hall singing two of the show’s most famous songs, and some delightful costuming by Tracy Hinman. The play is directed with obvious affection by Craig Miller, who employs some impressive touches—crumpled poetry, a well-timed tear, but despite the cleverness of these inventions, it can’t quite make this dated, deeply tired show seem less like the out-of-touch dinosaur it is.
As the self-impressed professor of linguistics Henry Higgins, David Yen is thoroughly entertaining, though not very likable, gleefully aiming a barrage of insults at Eliza Doolittle, an unhappy flower girl who asks him to teach her proper English enunciation. As Eliza, Denise Elia sings the part beautifully, effectively underplaying the character’s usual fire, thus emphasizing Eliza’s fear and uncertainty—making Higgins even less likable in the process.
That, it must be said, has always been the primary failure of ‘My Fair Lady’—a Battle of the Sexes” love story in which the last thing we want is for main characters to fall in love.
‘Venus in Fur’ runs Fridays and Saturdays through May 21 at Belrose Theater, Visit marinonstage.org. ‘My Fair Lady’ runs Thursday–Sunday, through June 6 at 6th Street Playhouse. www.6thstreetplayhouse.com