"Venus in Fur," a dark comedy with S&M themes will reward, not punish, its audience
March 10, 2017
“Naked onstage?” the actress ponders. “For you, no charge. A freebie.”
Hey, before you push this review aside and rush out to the Wells Theatre to buy a ticket, be advised that “Venus in Fur,’’ the current production of Virginia Stage Company, is an intriguingly acted but exasperating tease. It deals with, among other things, male-vs.-female dominance, class prejudice and psychological jockeying.
Yes, its leading “lady” requires its leading man to kiss her foot and wear a dog collar. And she does model black boots, lingerie and high heels. But there is no nudity. “Venus in Fur” has some steamy moments that might cause your face to burn, but as for walking on the wild side, it doesn’t even get up to the starting line.
There are, however, good reasons to see it.
The main one is the performance of Charlotte Bydwell as Vanda, who is, at varying times, an endearingly kooky would-be actress, a pathetic loser, a sad waif and an aristocrat capable of dominating her male prey with sophisticated arrogance. The part is an actress’s dream – Nina Arianda won the Tony Award for best actress in a play in 2012 for her performance in the Broadway production, which also received a nomination for best play.
Bydwell takes it on with relish, as well as ease.
The setting is a bare rehearsal hall where a fledgling writer-director is weary in his efforts to find an actress to play the dominatrix in his play, an adaptation of the 1870 novel “Venus in Furs” by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name put the M in S&M. The novel is about a man who allows a haughty woman to wield total power over him. He becomes obsessed with being dominated.
Vanda, a seemingly scatterbrained actress, arrives late and begs to be auditioned for the play. The director gives in, something he will do often, and soon the two are taken over by the roles in the play. If it seems a bit contrived, and obvious, it’s because it is.
Playwright David Ives, who is known primarily for adapting old musicals for New York’s Encore series, is guilty of some particularly lazy writing, as he has his two characters jump from present (the audition) to past (the novel). The ploy relieves the need for transition or character development.
As we try to get a handle on the “real” characters, we are frustrated as they go back and forth. It seems we are neither here nor there, but someone is going to be dominated. Bring it on – and be quicker about it.
That doesn’t mean it is not exciting, even lively, theater, sparked by two hard-working actors who have a great time showing off.
Colin Ryan has the more thankless task of playing the playwright – playing repression is not the easiest assignment. The character’s persistent reluctance can be repetitive but, then, that’s in the script.
Director Jessica Holt proves herself adept as an actors’ director and clearly has a handle on the material. Her take, whether advantageous or not, is toward the comedic – allowing Vanda to flutter about in costume changes and march about in a manner dangerously close to slapstick.
Blair Mielnik’s set is suitably sparse. Martha Goode’s sound design is particularly dramatic with its thunder and lightning – even if the drama to go with it is not there. But Lynne M. Hartman’s lighting design is a true work of art, particularly in the moments that highlight those little figures around the balconies of the Wells – faces that could be cupids or something more threatening. I suggest that the theater be permanently lighted in this way.
“Venus in Fur” is a transparent cop-out along the lines of “50 Shades of Grey,” but this production does offer adventurous live theater that should be seen. And yes, you can laugh. Call it a dark comedy if you like. In any case, the fun is in the playing – as long as you agree to the rules of the game.