That’s what I expected, sitting down in the Goodman’s beautiful Albert theatre, preparing to see David Ives’ recent exploit, Venus in Fur. I had heard from various sources that this new comedy was something sexy, something funny, something that any non-prude would be sure to enjoy. I don’t exactly consider myself a prude, but I have never enjoyed explicit sexual conversation, innuendo, or imagery. Unfortunately for my tastes, this play is flush with same.
With this bias in mind, I found Venus in Fur is an excellent comedy, with strikingly real characters and subtly elegant plot twists. The two characters, Vanda and Thomas, played by Amanda Drinkall and Rufus Collins, respectively, have an unbeatably strong relationship. It develops quickly with the rolling action of the play, guided beautifully by the director, Joanie Schultz.
In the first few minutes of the play, Drinkall’s Vanda bursts into the scene, interrupts Thomas on a casual phone call, and begins to gesticulate wildly about why she’s an hour late for an audition for Thomas’ play. While fictional director and playwright struggle to keep order, Vanda gives both him and the audience the impression that she cannot be taken seriously, as an actor or as a person. However, this all changes when Vanda begins to read her part.
As the play progresses, Vanda and Thomas continue to perform from Thomas’ play, punctuating their scripted scenes with personal discussions about everything from sex kinks to coffee. It is clear that Thomas is quickly intrigued by Vanda, mostly by her seemingly-dual personalities, as he watches her transform from a giddy young actress into a powerful, domineering eighteenth-century German lady. He plays the part of her tortured lover, bound by contract to be his mistress’ slave for a year before they marry. Drinkall and Collins switch seamlessly between their two opposing characters. They offer a wide range of differentiations, from speech and tone to how they hold their bodies in the different characters.
Throughout the play, though most keenly at the intimate parts, an audience member feels as though he or she is intruding upon a private scene. It’s sort of voyeuristic. Additionally, the feeling causes some degree of discomfort, even if an audience member is not usually bothered by sexual imagery or themes. Though one is somewhat unseen in the darkness of the house, he or she is still aware of his or her fellow theatre-goers, be they strangers or loved ones. This discomfort distracted me somewhat from full focus of the play, even disregarding my previously-mentioned uneasiness with sexual imagery. But it doesn’t entirely kill the mood. If anything, the sense of naughtiness, of being caught doing something a bit dangerous, only further draws the audience into the mood of the play. As for me, like Thomas in relation to Vanda, I allowed my biases about the appearance play to fade as I became more interested in the emotions and motives of the two characters.
Under the excellent guidance of Schultz, the true interest of this play unfolds in a subtle shift of dynamic between the two characters. Despite his familiarity with the play and its characters, which he adapted from a novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Thomas seems uncertain about his portrayal of his subservient male lead. Vanda constantly offers encouragement to him, even going so far as to whip out various costumes to make him feel more “in character.”
Vanda makes various comments about how Thomas must have a lot of sexual kinks of his own, comparing them to those of his character. In the play, his character immediately takes a submissive role, and Vanda’s character is the dominant partner. In the real world of the play, however, the roles are reversed. Thomas, as a director, has power over Vanda, and Vanda must do as she feels would please him. However, just as in the play, the man and the woman come to conflicts about who has certain powers, and always one or the other concedes.
An interesting use of sound and light illuminates this shifting of power between Vanda and Thomas. It is raining outside of the run-down theatre building in which the play is set, complete with raindrops and rolls of thunder. Sound designer Mikhail Fiskel reveals his expertise in understanding appropriate moments for audio effects, for each time Vanda and Thomas’ dynamic comes into conflict, thunder strikes ominously. This plays off of Keith Parham‘s use of lighting. Vanda changes the light in the audition room to reflect what she believes the mood should be. Suspiciously, Thomas is unable to alter their illumination at all.
The most stunning part, however, comes delightfully at the end, in a huge twist of power and dominance. It takes a bit of thought to comprehend, but as soon as the lightbulb illuminates, one truly appreciates the genius of David Ives. It’s one of those “Eureka!” moments where small things in the beginning suddenly seem very deliberate. This skill is difficult to master for any author, and Ives does it beautifully. Venus in Fur is definitely sexy, but it is also a masterful story about power in a relationship.