Virginia Stage Company brings dark, sexy “Venus in Fur” to Norfolk
By David Nicholson
March 3, 2017
Everything in the world is about sex, but sex. Sex is about power.
That observation often is attributed to Oscar Wilde, but whatever its origin, it’s a good place to start with “Venus in Fur,” David Ives’ smart, sexy comedy at Virginia Stage Company.
The setting for this two-character play is a New York rehearsal studio. Thomas is a writer-director, and Vanda is an actress auditioning for a role in his play.
It would seem that Thomas holds all the power, but the audition soon evolves into a sexually charged cat-and-mouse game. The two engage in a who’s-on-top exchange in a constantly shifting dominant-submissive pairing.
“These are two characters who are challenging and provoking each other,” director Jessica Holt said. “I don’t want the audience to know who has the power.”
Apparently, the erotic dialogue and steamy material has captivated theater audiences. “Venus in Fur” was the most produced play in the 2013-2014 theater season, according to American Theatre magazine.
In an earlier interview, Ives indicated that the idea for the play came from reading an 1870 novella titled “Venus in Furs” by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The book is a novelization of the author’s own submissive erotic entanglements, according to Ives. The word “masochism” is based on his surname.
In Ives’ version, a kind of play-within-a-play, Thomas has written a work based on the Sacher-Masoch book. He’s a first-time director who’s having trouble casting the female lead. After a long day of unsuccessful auditioning, Vanda arrives late and convinces him to let her read for the part.
She’s earthy and slightly vulgar, a combination Thomas at first feels is all wrong for the role. In one of the evening’s famous lines, she says about his play, “basically it’s S&M porn.” But as Vanda begins to audition, she transforms herself, and Thomas becomes hooked – in more ways than one.
“I’m coming in as the epitome of everything he hates and flipping it,” said Charlotte Bydwell, the actress playing Vanda.
In addition to the frank dialogue, Ives plays out the dominant-submissive relationship in more physical ways. Thomas’ control slips away as Vanda seduces him with a bag full of period costume pieces and other props she’s brought to the audition.
“It’s such a rich environment with this shifting power structure,” said Colin Ryan, the actor playing Thomas. For him, the play explores “why we think a frank discussion of sex has to be vulgar.”
Ives layers his work with touches of mystery, 19th century melodrama, and the play-within-a-play device, Holt said, which gives the actors plenty of material as well. The 90-minute play tales place in real time, and this production will have a working clock on the set that the actors will be constantly aware of.
“The audience gets to know who the people are in real time,” Ryan said.
The Wells Theatre’s beautiful beaux-arts interior offers a fitting backdrop to the theatrical nature of the story. In Holt’s words, “the Wells has to have a conversation with the play.”
“Venus in Fur” opened off-Broadway in 2011 and moved to Broadway the following year, where it received two Tony Award nominations. Roman Polanski – no stranger to sexual controversy – adapted the film for a 2013 movie he directed.
Part of the play’s appeal is the way Ives explores the relationships between sex and power, art and life, gender roles and society’s expectations of them.
Writing in the New York Times in 2011, theater critic Charles Isherwood said: “the mysteries of Vanda’s motives and Charles’ true desires are what kept the tension on the boil for the play’s running time of a little more than 90 minutes. The excitement in watching ‘Venus in Fur’ is not knowing exactly what the emotional and sexual stakes really are.”
When asked what Ives means to say in his play, Holt responded:
“The interaction of sex and power and identity is where the play is. Who are we and how do we reveal ourselves?”