It’s a dark and stormy night. Working in a rented and calculatedly funky New York City rehearsal studio, director slash playwright slash occasional actor Thomas is ending a long day of auditions for his adaptation of the obscure German novel Venus Im Pelz by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Thomas phones his girlfriend Stacy and vents: actresses are smarmy, tarted up, empty-headed trollops with fancy headshots. He tosses a stack of resumes into the round file and prepares to leave.
Just as gorgeous Vanda staggers out of the night, carrying a massive shoulder bag, wearing a white leather raincoat over a black leather miniskirt over frilly black Victoria’s Secret lingerie, catch-me-have-me high heels – and a large studded dog collar. Vanda is loud and brassy, shrill and blowsy, electrifying and commanding, vicious and frightening, mad and manic. Oh, and funny. Really funny. She hands Thomas a crumpled resume. “You’re not really what I’m looking for.” Vanda insists. Half-heartedly, they read the first three pages of the play.
And she’s brilliant.
This, in a nutshell, is the plot of David Ives‘s clever S&M thriller, Venus In Fur (at the Jungle Theater through March 10): a play reading. Ah, but there is so much more going on in this erotic, yet weirdly sterile comic examination of power, gender, artistic imagination. Is Vanda play-acting as Vanda the screechy actress, or as the reserved and arch 19th century Vanda? Why do these characters have the same name? She claims not to have read the book, yet she has memorized the entire play. Why does she know so much about fiancée Stacy, about Thomas himself? Why do the roles reverse, with Thomas himself playing the masochistic (the word comes from Sacher-Masoch himself) woman? I rather doubt whether Ives himself could answer these questions, but no matter: the heat of Venus In Fur lies in the asking.
Director (and designer) Joel Sass takes the faster/funnier approach to this material. Venus In Fur crackles right along, propelled by actor Anna Sundberg‘s frantic and frenetic glee. The audience, rightfully, delighted in her lightning fast transitions, her wild and fantastical intelligence, her delightful nastiness, her comic fervor. Sundberg does bravura work and provides a performance you won’t want to miss.
One can’t help but wonder, though, if a slower, more human approach might have resulted in a more genuine, more compellingly sexual reading of the play. Maybe, but such an m.o. would likely also result in a dull and turgid show; Sass’s approach was probably the correct one. Still, jaded creep that I am, I more than once found myself bored by the one note relentlessness of Venus In Fur. But not my lovely companion, who laughed constantly, mesmerized by Sundberg’s riveting performance. You’ll have to decide for yourself. Venus In Fur does frustrate, but much more often it thrills.
The character of Thomas could easily be lost but the marvelous Peter Christian Hansen more than holds his own. Hansen is tall and fiercely handsome, blessed with an attention-grabbing calmness. One really identifies with his building respect – and desire – for this woman. She constantly sparks new understandings, for Thomas, of his play and Hansen plays this beautifully. When he kneels and reverently puts on Vanda’s shiny black thigh length mistress boots, he took my breath away.
The Jungle is a jewel-box, the loveliest space in town. Set designer Sass precisely reproduces the design of the New York production, and ditto costumer Amelia Cheever. But who cares; the design, as always in this theater, is perfect.
Recommended. Venus In Fur may not be quite your cup of tea, but Sundberg and Hansen make it a must-see.
For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.