Venus in Fur: Pleather and Plays

Playwright David Ives is a polarizing figure: audiences either love him or hate him. His work often has an irreverence that some find hilarious and others find off-putting. At his best, Ives can be as funny as Monty Python, as in his classic six-minute short play Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread (performed by 2nd Story Theatre a few years ago). If you’re the sort of person who watches Spamalot (or Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and questions why the knights are riding coconuts instead of horses, Ives is not for you.

A bit of background is helpful for those not already familiar with 19th Century German-language pornography. In 1870, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published an autobiographical novella Venus in Fur about his unconventional relationship with the writer Fanny Pistor, who in real life used the alias (and fake title) “Baroness Bogdanoff.” In the novella, the narrator, presumably von Sacher-Masoch, introduces a book-within-the-book, Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man, in which the author creates fictional versions of himself and his lover as “Severin von Kusiemski” and “Wanda von Dunajew,” respectively, where Severin pretends to be Wanda’s servant “Gregor” so that he can be humiliated and mistreated by her because he finds this erotically exciting. (After von Sacher-Masoch’s death, his widow Aurora von Rümelin published her memoirs under the pseudonym “Wanda von Dunajew,” taking the name of the fictional character who was, ironically, not based on her.) The real-life novella was pretty much the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day and would be deservedly forgotten except that it gave rise to the word “masochism,” coined in 1886 from the name of the author without his consent by early Austrian sexologist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing. One could make a plausible case that two world wars might have been prevented if the Germans had better porn.

Skipping ahead 140 years before this all becomes a meta-meta-meta swamp of confusion, Ives’ 2010 play, also named Venus in Fur, is about a modern director, Thomas (Richard Derry), who is overwhelmed and harried trying to stage his own adaptation of the historical novella. Thomas is pussy-whipped, to use an extremely non-politically-correct phrase that nevertheless perfectly describes his situation, by his unseen fiancée who repeatedly telephones while he is working.

Ives’ ear for dialogue is as good as it gets, and this presents a formidable challenge to his actors, especially in the two-character Venus in Fur where the female lead is not only not what she claims to be, but is not even what she claims not to be. (The character of Vanda is a showcase for virtuoso acting, and Nina Arianda won the 2012 Tony Award for creating the role on Broadway.) Rising to the challenge at 2nd Story, Lara Hakeem as “Vanda” brilliantly runs the gamut from a Fanny Brice-like aspiring actress with a touch of Brooklyn accent to the 19th Century Austrian aristocrat character for which she is auditioning. It seems a remarkable coincidence that the actress, arriving so late to her audition that everyone except the director has gone and he is on his way out, shares the same name as the character she wants to play. The eagerly anticipatory Vanda brings a bag of tricks she must have borrowed from Felix at the cathouse.

Although the 1870 novella is often mistaken as a proto-feminist endorsement of female empowerment, it is no such thing to any greater extent than disposable romance novels could be regarded as feminist because the girl protagonist always gets the guy. The dichotomous pair of the dominatrix and her submissive calls into question the underlying idea of role-playing: we the audience are watching two actors playing two characters in a modern play who are playing actors in a play-within-the-play that is an adaptation of an old novella about two characters in a book-within-the-book who are based on a real-life dominatrix and submissive, the latter of whom is the author of the novella. All of this meta-theatricality is fun, like watching the knights in Spamalot riding their coconuts: the knights know they’re not horses and we know they’re not horses, but we never do find out what the coconuts think.

Ives’ modern play, however, is overtly feminist. At the outset, the power dynamic between Thomas and Vanda is heavily unbalanced in his favor, as she is an aspiring performer auditioning for the play he wrote and is directing. As the situation evolves by increments, the power between them begins to be exchanged, first by her winning her battle to get him to stay and let her read for the part, and then because he realizes she is a natural for the role. How much of Thomas has he written into the male character in his play? How much of Vanda is in the female character Thomas has written? What happens when fantasy threatens to become reality, and should the opportunity be seized? Or is it too dangerous?

Venus in Fur, directed by Ed Shea, 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St, Warren. Mature subject matter unsuitable for anyone under 18, including core themes of bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism. One act without intermission, about 90 minutes. Thu (6/25, 7/23, 7/30) 7:30pm, Fri (6/26, 7/24, 7/31) 7:30pm, Sat (6/27, 7/25, 8/1) 7:30pm, Sun evening (6/28) 7:30pm, Sun matinee (6/28, 7/26, 8/2) 2:30pm. Handicap accessible. 2ndstorytheatre.com/show/venus-in-fur/ Tickets: app.arts-people.com/index.php?actions=4&p=1

The 1870 novella, translated into English: gutenberg.org/ebooks/6852

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