Sunday, January 26, 2014

Venus in Fur: Pelts and Power Play

by Jenni Morin

Ever since Leopold von Sacher-Masoch penned his 1870 novel Venus in Furs, his name has been synonymous with masochism and the fascinating subculture practicing sexual dominance and subjugation. Perhaps for further probing, playwright David Ives deconstructed Sacher-Masoch’s work in his 2010 play Venus in Fur, an undeniably ferocious and tantalizing battle of the sexes, now showing at The Playhouse’s Cellar Theater through February 9.

Ives brilliantly uses the play within a play technique to dissect Sacher-Masoch’s story of Severin von Kusiemski and Wanda von Dunajew. As playwright and director Thomas Novachek prepares to leave after a day of disappointing and mindless auditions for the female lead, Vanda Jordan arrives and convinces him to read with her for her audition, despite exhibiting all the unfavorable and aggravating characteristics of the flighty actresses before her. Throughout the audition, Vanda reveals she has more knowledge of the play and its inspiration than she originally let on while simultaneously making her identity more ambiguous. Roles are reversed and the line between the characters’ reality and that of Thomas’ play begin to blur as they succumb to a sultry power play.

Michael Holley as Thomas and Kacey Griffin as Vanda in The Playhouse's Venus in Fur. Photo by Siggi Ragnar.

Director John O’Neill expertly uses space, tone and subtlety to allow this metatheatrical piece to unfold. The dialogue is treated as an intricate dance with mirrors where the characters reflect the roles they’ve adopted and then reflect each other, all along dropping nearly imperceptible clues and feverish anticipation to the inevitable ending. Both Michael Holley as Thomas and Kacey Griffin as Vanda command the stage in their dual roles. Just as a dominant needs a submissive to be complete, these two complement and provoke each other for a titillating and humorous performance. Holley and Griffin maneuver the play’s twists and turns with unbridled boldness.

The set, designed by Abigail Entsminger, is a fitting canvas for Kaitlin Muse’s slow seductive lighting transitions. The evocative hues rise up Wanda’s neck as if mimicking the character blushing, then reality washes over Thomas and Vanda with a florescent imitation just as they approach a point of no return. Combined with Pat Smith’s seemingly coincidental, yet poignant sound effects and Sophia Bolles’ impeccable costuming, the design elements brought the production full circle with great intuition. The Playhouse’s production of Venus in Fur is a rapturous dramatic comedy full of innuendo, insight and seduction.

Thomas and Vanda improvise a scene between Kusiemski and Venus. Photo by Siggi Ragnar.
Ives uses the characters in the play to preemptively reject the anthropological and sociological commentary about S&M and sexual relations altogether. They even broach the issues themselves as Thomas argues for love and binding passion and Vanda insists his script is sexist and a man’s submission is an inherent trick, taking advantage of woman’s fragility. Ives is not looking to make a statement about feminism, gender roles, or even sex, but he does drill other themes of human nature through repetition. He challenges “professed principles” by urging people to admit their nature or change it and insists people have the capacity for freedom by being more easily extricable. With so many parallels between Thomas’ script and the audition dynamic, it stands to reason Ives draws parallels between his characters and the very nature of actors, then extends those parallels beyond the stage, putting a mirror up to the audience. In the end, Ives leaves a few definitive pieces of the play to drive it home: the women of The Bacchae ripping Pentheus to shreds, the biblical quote “And the Lord hath smitten him and delivered him into a woman’s hands,” and finally, Vanda’s line, “You can’t have Venus in Fur without Venus.”

Venus in Fur will run at The Playhouse’s Cellar Theater through February 9, 2014 with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; and 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Sundays. This production contains strong language and adult themes. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

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