“I always think a playwright’s job is to let actors do their stuff,” playwright David Ives asserts. “I think what we’re supposed to do is write wonderful things for actors, who are much more important and interesting than we are.”
Wow. Did Ives ever get it right with his marvelous Venus in Fur, now receiving a superb production at the hands of Studio Theatre. It is subtle, brilliant, precise – but best of all, it is a vehicle for an astonishing performance by the remarkable Erica Sullivan.
It is impossible to overstate the quality of Sullivan’s work in this play, but let me give it a shot. She is incandescent, illuminating this fine work with the sort of intelligence which makes her character at once ridiculous and endearing, embraceable and radiant with toxic power.
She takes a production which is already absolutely top-flight and elevates it to something of Shakespearean proportions, in this way: whereas in Midsummer Night’s Dream the queenly Titania is transformed by the theater of magic into a braying donkey, in Venus in Fur the actor Vanda, played by Sullivan, enters the stage as a braying donkey and through the magic of theater becomes a queen. Sullivan is donkey, queen, magician, and better than all that – she is an actor, in the highest and best tradition of her profession; more than portraying art, she becomes art.
Nope, still not over the top.
Look, you know this story, even if you’ve never seen it before. Playwright Thomas (Christian Conn) has adapted the classic Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel, “Venus in Furs”. The novel tells the story of Severin von Kusiemsk, who is struck by a profoundly sexual impulse to prostrate and degrade himself before the beautiful Wanda von Dunajew, whom he asks to treat him like a slave. Thomas, who appears to have control issues, decides that he must direct as well as adapt this production.
The play opens in a shabby rehearsal room while a storm rages outside. Thomas is on his cell phone to his fiancée, complaining about the quality of actors he has auditioned to play the part of Wanda. In Sacher-Masoch’s time, he fumes, a 24-year-old woman would be a grown-up, married with five children. But now women in their twenties are children – “six-year-olds on helium”. He does some cruel imitations of their banal and moronic expressions.
Just as a blast of lightning cuts off the phone call, Vanda (Sullivan) bursts in the room, a wind-blown cliché of a woman who illustrates the sins of every one of the actors Thomas has just auditioned. Everything about Vanda seems to be designed to disqualify her for this important role – her vacant eyes, her annoying laugh, her half-witted attempts at flattery (she praises him for a play he didn’t write), her slender, smeared résumé. What’s more, she has no appointment. After resisting her whiny pleas for a while, Thomas decides that the quickest way out of the rehearsal room and to dinner with his fiancée is to allow Vanda to give a brief read.
And she’s brilliant.
Every relationship, sexual or no, is about the allocation of power. In the most traditional and conventional of relationships, such as the one between director and actor or, in Sacher-Masoch’s time, between men and women, the allocation of power is well-established. One party has it, and the other doesn’t. That’s what makes changing the allocation so transgressive and thrilling, even erotic. It was impossible to imagine, in Sacher-Masoch’s time (or even in our own, where equality is the byword), what would happen if a woman held the whip hand. The world would be open to every possibility.
It is doubly transgressive here, where the woman is the actor and the man is the director, and triply transgressive where the man is a distinguished and successful playwright and the woman appears to be a meathead. But – and I know you’ve already guessed this – she is more than she appears, and he is less. Venus in Fur is a hundred-minute pas de deux, in which Vanda subtly, assuredly, inexorably wrests power from Thomas, just as Wanda took power from Severin, a hundred and forty years ago.
In noting the incredible work of Sullivan, who gives the best performance I have seen this year, I do not mean to slight the rest of this first-rate production. Conn is superb – absolutely convincing as a man of integrity blinded a little by arrogance; a flawed protagonist who gets the comeuppance he deserves and, perhaps, secretly wants.
The technical elements are ideal – Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are perfect, and Matthew M. Nielson’s sound and Michael Lincoln’s complicated lighting are spot-on.
This is unquestionably the finest work I have ever seen director David Muse do. While the best stage choreography speaks with a quiet voice, do yourself a favor and take special note of the moment when Thomas, ostensibly reading the part of Severin, puts the long boots on Vanda, ostensibly reading the part of Wanda. It is the most erotic scene I have seen on stage this year, easily surpassing the scene in which Oedipus and Jocasta, both nude, have sex in Woolly’s Oedipus el Rey.
I could go on, but I’d be wasting the time you should be spending reserving your tickets. If you miss this show, you will be thinking bad things about yourself for a long time, and I won’t blame you at all.
Venus in Fur
By David Ives
Directed by David Muse
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission
- Jonathan Padget . Metro WeeklyDoug Poms . MDTheatreGuideSophie Gilbert . WashingtonianChris Klimek . Washington City PaperWilliam Alburque . Brightest Young ThingsBob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You
- Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC