You’ve probably seen the alluring posters of Amanda Drinkall draped in sleek furs all across the city buses, taxi cabs and the windows of North Side hot dog restaurants and thought, “Oh my God, Goodman is doing a porno!”, or at least, that’s what the outspoken character Vanda said about the play within the play “Venus In Fur.” Suffice to say, “Venus In Fur” is no porno, but a seductive, astute, droll, yet dramatic masterpiece.
“Venus In Fur” opens with fussbudget director Thomas, who is frustrated over not being able to find the right actress to play the role of Vanda in his play-adaptation of “Venus In Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. He’s ready to give up and go home to his plain-jane fiancée, when Vanda, a candid, confident actress walks into the shoddy rehearsal room and insists on auditioning. At first hesitant, Thomas gives in and they begin to read through the first few pages of the play, and we see Vanda transform from a loud, obnoxious actress to a dominant, eloquent woman of the 1800s. The rest of the plot unfolds into a compelling epic of dominance, copulation and the psychology of a writer’s fantasies played out in a play.
The biggest takeaway from “Venus In Fur” is the theme of gender roles in the matter of masochism and sadomasochism. The role of Vanda is domineering and powerful, but not in a demeaning way: She is assertive, headstrong and when she talks, you listen. Sure, that sounds like a lot of female characters with this kind of will who make you want to bash your head into a wall because they’re so annoying. But Vanda has a crafty, witty charm to her, she’s written with so much gradation that you don’t know if she’s just an actress who delves very deeply into the characters she auditions for, or if she’s actually an evil, manipulative vixen who wants to make poor Thomas jump through sexual hoops for purposes of her own. Whether it’s one of the two, or some kind of awkward median, the audience is ultimately rooting for Vanda throughout the entire show because of her sexy, imperious demeanor, but more so because it’s rare to find such a powerful female character in theater these days. Vanda makes it on my list of the most dominating female characters in theater of all time, right up there with Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
You’ve probably noticed the word “dominant” several times by now, most strongly represented as a theme in the play through the power struggle between Thomas and Vanda. But why is there a power struggle there? It’s more than clear 30 minutes into the play that Vanda has ulterior motives than just getting this part; what those motives are, exactly, is debatable. Because Vanda’s motives bring out Thomas’s motives, I would argue that Vanda aims to make Thomas realize his true wants and desires, sexually and otherwise. As for Thomas, once Vanda establishes her domineering position, his motive is just to take control over Vanda, because secretly, he really just wants to be in control.
Amanda Drinkall and Rufus Collins unquestionably played this show to its fullest, most entertaining capacity, which is quite a feat, because 90-minute plays with no-intermission and a two-person cast can be quite hard to pull off for a restless audience. Drinkall embodied everything Vanda should be, she was quick, cunning and spasmodic with all of her lines and actions. As for Rufus Collins, he was exactly what Thomas should be: an insecure, compliant man, but one who can be provocative and authoritarian when he needs to be.
The best example of this is during the readthroughs of Thomas’ play, when Vanda reads in for Wanda, and Thomas for Severin Von Kushemski. The plot of the adaptation of “Venus In Furs” moves along as the physical plot of the play moves along too. Toward the beginning of the play, Wanda agrees to marry Severin if he’ll be her slave for a whole year, and as Severin agrees, he slowly and sensually caresses Wanda from behind, in a passionate, foreshadowing moment of the play. This moment best resembles the relationship between Vanda and Thomas, because it shows her dominance and pity for Thomas, and it shows his confused state of desperation and his tenderness he longs to expose.
This play is easily the best play so far in the Goodman’s Albert 2013-14 season. The plot is captivating and keeps you longing for more, even in-between black outs. The story is far enough out of reality that you’re completely enthralled, but it is kept down to earth by its practical, sweaty, non-union, rehearsal room set. This play is a true wonder, invoking thought, admiration, and awe all in just 95 minutes.