Venus in Fur – Close to the Sun
Venus in Fur, baby, Venus in FURS. I say it twice because such a thing is oddly fitting in this play-within-a-play. Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch is the Austrian dude who penned Venus in Furs (the book) in 1870 [Fun fact: Sacher-Masoch is the inspiration for the term “maschoism”, so you know where this is going -TBO]. He had a totally awkward concept called sadomasochism [Told you-TBO]. Basically, very basically, the book is how a guy gets tingly feelings about becoming the sex slave of a lady wearing furs. Lots of furs. Like, LOTS of furs.
Venus in Fur (no plural), the play, weaves a delicious, intricate, Ivesian Pas De Deux. Playwright Thomas Novachek (Andrew Porter) sits in his New York city office after seeing too many actors audition for his adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (meta!). Eventually a very, very late Vanda Jorda (Ann Shoemaker) bursts through the door to audition for the role of Wanda von Dunayev (in correct pronunciation that initial “W” would be pronounced as the English “V”). She carries an assortment of baggage, both literal and figurative. Vanda excessively and obnoxiously apologizes for her tardiness of several hours. Thomas decides to audition Vanda by sight-reading the play on the spot. Vanda claims she’s not ready…but…hmmm. And then all hell breaks loose. She grabs a dress out of her bag (“I got it for three dollars”) pulls it on, and begins to read the play word-for-flawless-word. Sliding into perfect Austrian accent, her body language shifts as she absolutely and stunningly becomes Thomas’s Wanda von Dunayev, like, to the motha’fuckin’ T. Thomas is floored. The sexual tension, the personal stories of abuse and power, and the fiction inside the fiction all take off like a bottle rocket. Time shifts back and forth, shuttling like a typewriter’s carriage, between the late eighteen-hundreds and the mid twenty-teens. Eventually, their lunge’n’parry becomes less and less obvious as the script melds, like silly-putty, into real-world dom/sub. The final scene’s twist is completely unexpected, I wouldn’t dare reveal it here.
I’ll admit that I had no idea what this show was about prior to my attendance opening night. From the bits and pieces of scandal I’ve heard in passing, I knew it was some sort of twisted S&M thing, but not much more. What I got on stage was far better orchestrated, exponentially deeper and better acted than I had prepared for. This play is, on the surface, about sex, yes, but it’s not brash nor is it gratuitous. As someone who constantly tries to pull apart historical gender roles and get to the bottom of male/female stereotypes, it hit home for me. I love the honesty of the dialogue. I love how passionately Vanda defends Wanda’s actions as dominatrix as a defiance of both contemporary and historical patriarchy. Ives isn’t talking about S&M or sexual domination, he’s talking about how things that affect us in our childhood can grow to control us. And about how fucked the power play of sex and gender really are in America.
And it is brilliant.
Director Lynda McClary put together a beautiful pair, I’ll give her that. Shoemaker and Porter are stellar, seasoned actors who perfectly pull off this non-stop show (thye play a total of four characters, or six, if you’re really digging). They are a wonderful combination. Shoemaker really shines in the duality of her role and Porter’s humanity bleeds through Thomas’s socially awkward façade. The stage presence of these two, my God, I was rapt. McClary, while certainly and justifiably focused on the acting here, wandered occasionally into some unnatural blocking that could have been more motivated. I’d have liked to see a cleaner stage picture, a more coherent vision for Ives’ incredible work. Technically the show missed quite a few marks. The set (un-credited, which is perhaps the problem?) was uninteresting and showed signs of shoddy craftsmanship. Lousy paint treatment, strange color choices, weird wall angles…it all just blocked the damned flow. Lighting design (Joel Selzer) was mostly broad strokes instead of thoughtful decisions. Thankfully there were no obvious shadows on stage, but let’s talk about glare for a second. The lights were just too bright and this is a play about sexy time, not a hospital operating room. Rick Stover was the sound designer, which was basically a bunch of lighting and storm sound effects. There’s a Fight Choreographer listed (Larry Malkus) but I seriously didn’t understand why…or perhaps the fights were so unremarkable that I just forgot they happened?
The Bottom Line: Just ignore the technical execution of Venus in Fur and you’re in for an amazing, thought-provoking evening. Anne Shoemaker earns her starlet wings once again and Andrew Porter is more than up for pairing her. Bravo(a) to them both. Fells Point is doing this “Fire in the House” thing and this show burns with an oh-so-deliciously painful sting. I left feeling both turned on and disappointed in society, which is just a fantastic Saturday night, right?
Running at Fells Point Corner Theatre until April 3rd.
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