Reflecting on David Ives’ Venus in Fur, an adaptation of Austrian Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs, thoughts inevitably drift to Spike Jonze’s acclaimed 2002 film Adaptation; both tell the story of a writer’s difficult task of adapting a piece of literature into a visual medium.
This struggle essentially serves as a MacGuffin that allows each writer to confront and eventually resolve his own personal turmoil. Adaptation pursues this end by setting the writer at odds with his identical twin brother; Venus in Fur uses a particularly curious casting session as the impetus for this inner conflict.
Director David Muse and Set Designer Blythe Quinn make their intentions perfectly clear from the outset. This takes place in a spare, fluorescent-lit casting room with a water pipe bisecting the entranceway that runs from the ceiling to the floor like a blanched stripper pole.
At the foreground is the casting couch: a dingy, pea soup-green sofa that ties the room together as if it were in a 19th century Viennese psychoanalyst’s office. A small wooden desk and two folding metal chairs sit on the left edge of the stage, a few more chairs sit along the back wall. This is barely a casting room – and that is the point.
The space between the entrance door and that other portal, that couch where the mind is ajar, that is up to the imagination to fill. That white-washed phallic symbol of tawdry lust, that water pipe-cum-stripper pole (Latin – like summa cum laude) is as good a place as any to start – and finish.
Thomas (Christian Conn), the playwright adapting and directing the play-within-a-play complains on the phone to his fiancé after a long and fruitless day of auditioning ditzy, vapid actresses who are unfit to play the domineering female lead in his play, Wanda.
In from the rain bursts Vanda (Erica Sullivan – and yes, with a “V”) in a pink rain slicker. She is late and disheveled, and toting a large, black garbage bag full of props and costumes.
She is the epitome of the type of actress Thomas hates: she speaks in shrill, airheaded valley girl-ese, her demeanor offering none of the gravitas that Thomas imagines for the role. He tries to show her the door, insists that she leave, but Vanda won’t take no for an answer and finally she does read, and she is magical – in a sexy corset, she is the vision and the voice of Wanda (with a “W”), and Thomas is cast headlong into her spell.
Both Thomas and Sacher-Masoch envision Wanda as a representation of the Roman goddess Venus, as indicated by the title. Sacher-Masoch’s Wanda was intended to be an object of erotic worship, much like the Roman Goddess was worshipped as a goddess of love and passion, and Severin, her devotee, wishes for her to put him through Job-like trials of physical and emotional pain. Severin explains that he received frequent corporal punishment from his mistress as a young child that he eventually began to associate with erotic pleasure. Because of this, Masoch is where the word “masochism,” as in Sadomasochism comes from. In the play, Wanda alternatively describes herself as Venus and Aphrodite, who was the older Greek goddess from which Venus is based. This is a clever bit of psycho-symbolism: Aphrodite, the older goddess, represents his childhood mistress, Venus is his current obsession, and in the pantheon of gods, they are one and the same; thus, psychologically, the mistress and Wanda are one and the same.
The acting in Venus in Fur is, in a word, brilliant. This is not easy dialog, it switches back and forth from everyday chit-chat to Victorian Continental English, and it does so pretty seamlessly. This is a two-person play, and the actors develop an electric and organic sexual chemistry as the play progresses through its uninterrupted 90-minute running time that is transfixing and completely believable. Christian Conch is fantastic as he stumbles, regains his footing, and eventually falls completely for the stunning Erica Sullivan, who bravely offers a masterful and multi-faceted portrayal of V/Wanda, in a barely-there black lace corset that leaves little to the imagination.
Regular and reliably funny comic relief dots the play and keeps things moving until the rather puzzling and jarring denouement. The film Adaptation ties together its emotional and narrative loose ends as the Kaufmann brothers discover a cynical and sinister secret behind the non-fiction work they are attempting to adapt. In Venus in Fur, however, it is the reading of the adaptation that uncovers the hidden pathological truth, as the narrative is left to abruptly end with a bizarre and unfathomable twist. Perhaps this is relative to the idea that a dramatic writer can discover new facets within their writing upon hearing it read. And yet, as a theme, this does not square with what is presented, particularly at the end of the play. Whereas in Adaptation, Charlie Kaufmann ultimately resolves his inner conflict, Thomas winds up like Prometheus, but instead of being chained to a rock and left to be picked at by carrion for eternity, he is shackled to his own base lust for… who knows how long? For what and for how long, well, that remains unclear. Venus in Fur is a delightful, witty, funny, and sexy play that knows when, but not quite how to end.
Venus in Fur
by David Ives. Directed by David Muse. Set Design, Blythe Quinlan; lighting, Michael Lincoln; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; sound, Matt Nielsen; dialect coach, Gary Logan. About 90 minutes. Through July 3 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 202-332-3300 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.