TWN’s "Venus in Fur" an edgy tour de force
By Jim Sulzer
Contributing Writer The acclaimed playwright David Ives treats audiences to a show of almost preternatural cleverness in his one-act play "Venus in Fur," now being performed at Centre Stage in a gripping Theatre Workshop of Nantucket production of this twocharacter tour de force. "Venus in Fur" is many things at once, but at its most basic level it’s an edgy drama about the twists and turns of a struggle for domination and submission between Thomas, a successful playwright/director, and Vanda, an out-of-work actress.
When Vanda appears unbidden in Thomas’ studio late one evening to audition for a part, the resulting encounter plunges them deep into some of the thornier issues of sex, class and gender. The conflicts between Thomas and Vanda – both subtle and brash, sometimes humorous, often alarming – start to surface almost as soon as they begin to read from the play, which is Thomas’ adaptation of an 1870 novel of the same name by the German writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. "Basically it’s S& M porn," the less-refined but more intuitive Vanda comments to the erudite Thomas, who protests, " ‘Venus in Fur’ is a great love story. It’s a serious novel. It’s a central text of world literature."
And that’s only the start of their disagreements, which over the next 90 minutes set off a dazzling display of fireworks as they act out sections of the play, argue over its staging and meaning, engage in bitter struggles over who directs whom, explore bonding and bondage, manipulate and insult each other, and seem to grow increasingly bewildered about the boundaries between the characters in the play and their own selves.
All this may sound like an awful lot to stuff into the confines of a one-act play, but "Venus in Fur" is so seamlessly and flawlessly written that every word and gesture seems inevitable.
Theatre Workshop’s production, strongly directed by Jedediah Schultz and acted with impressive skill and passion by Kaitlyn Jane Kurowski and Jeff Barry, d elivers an evening of first-class drama. This play won’t be for everyone – there’s certainly no lack of explicit language and adult content, not to mention leather underwear and a silver-studded dog collar – but it’s well worth a visit for those who want to see the craft of acting displayed at a high level.
To accomplish so much in such a relatively-short time, Ives makes brilliant use of the play-within-the-play as the vehicle for revealing and developing the complexities of the two characters. Early on, the unrefined actress Vanda shows unexpected dignity and culture when she takes on the character of another Vanda: Vanda Dunayev, a proper and cultivated young woman living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1870. Kurowski does an excellent job making us believe in the stunning transformation from ditzy actress to self-possessed lady with a "transatlantic accent," the first hint that there may be more to this a ctress than she has revealed. Kurowski shows an easy command of her craft in modulating not only her voice but her posture and body language.
The playwright Thomas also changes remarkably from the arrogant, slightlybored writer/director to the needy, groveling lover Severin von Kushemski, a character whom he seems to channel all too easily. Barry takes us through the character’s panoply of emotions with a fine touch as he alternately gives in to Vanda’s growing power, resists, yields and fights back.
It is impossible to over-emphasize how difficult it is for two actors to hold an audience riveted for 100 minutes and put on a high-voltage display of ever-evolving tableaus. Kurowski and Barry pull off this feat, and it is no small accomplishment. The interplay between the two works well througho ut the course of the performance. At one point, in a surge of hatred and entitlement,Thomas calls Vanda an "idiot woman. Idiot actress," and Vanda replies with steely indignation, "I think you owe me an apology, buster." The moment works beautifully.
Later, Vanda/Dunayev commands Thomas/Kushemski to put a pair of "thighhigh, steeply-heeled patentleather dominatrix boots" on her. Kurowski and Barry play the scene for every ounce of its creepily-sexy potential.
More than sex, though, this drama is about power. A number of power imbalances are at work: male-female, high class-lower class, wealthpoverty. One of the most interesting portrayals of a power dynamic is that between director and actor. Thomas begins as the director of the play within the play. Once he too becomes a reader in the play, however, he lowers himself to the same level as the actress Vanda, and one of her more successful power moves is to take over, at times, the directing and stage-managing. The push and tug between them for power and dominance not only plays well on stage, it also allows them to comment with insight and intelligence on the craft of acting.
Over the course of the reading, Vanda starts to display hints of a surprising, perhaps even godlike omniscience. She somehow has come up with her own copy of Thomas’ unpublished script and seems to have committed it to memory despite claiming that she only "flipped through it quick on the train."
She seems to know a number of intimate details about Thomas’ life, including the identity and history of his fiancée. She even brings along period-correct costumes for both of them. The play teases us with the possibility that she is not really an out-ofwork actress, but the incarnation of a goddess, possibly an avenging Aphrodite. But any definite answers to these riddles fall into the ambiguous space created between the play and the play within the play.
For all its disturbing content, the play reads as a comedy: a dark comedy, certainly, but one capable of generating laughs. There is the potential in the play for comic relief that can lighten some of its overall tone.
The Theatre Workshop production has an opportunity to mine more of those moments. Some lines, such as, "If he’s gonna be reading when he meets Vanda, he can’t be reading here. Just hand out library cards, why dontcha," might generate more laughter. Playing up the lighter moments of the script might ease the delivery of the entire production.
You won’t find a lot of warmth or fuzzy feelings in the performance of this play. But it’s a powerful piece of work, and Theatre Workshop of Nantucket is to be commended for taking on this challenging project. The set design is by Peter Waldron, costumes and props by Emma Ford, lighting design by Winston Limauge, and sound design and stage managing by Kaitlyn Burke.
"Venus in Fur," Theatre Workshop of Nantucket, 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through July 16, Centre Stage, downstairs at 2 Centre St. www.theatreworkshop. com