Entertainment » Theatre

Venus in Fur

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jan 10, 2014
Chris Kipiniak as Thomas and Andrea Syglowski as Vanda in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of ’Venus in Fur,’ directed by Daniel Goldstein
Chris Kipiniak as Thomas and Andrea Syglowski as Vanda in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of ’Venus in Fur,’ directed by Daniel Goldstein  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

In this play from 2010 (made into a French language film two years later by none other than Roman Polanski), author David Ives jumps into the age-old (and highly confounding) gender war. What he's created is a work that's not just one thing, and indeed refuses even to remain settled in terms of genre; this play feels more than a little like a Russian doll, each figure housing a tinier version within itself, each internal homunculus leaping out in turn to declare itself as the work progresses.

At the same time, "Venus in Fur" carries a meta edge, as the events of the play we're watching begin to echo those of the play within the play -- a stage work that the characters (there are only two of them) alternately discuss and enact. The entire thing, in turn, echoes a novella from 1870 by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch -- a novella by the title "Venus in Furs."

It's from Sacher-Masoch's name that we derive the word "masochism," much as we get "sadism" from the Marquis de Sade. Like Sade, Sacher-Masoch had a social message in his (at the time scandalous) writings; the message of "Venus in Furs" (the 1870 novella) decries the inequality of women, and posits that women will only be true "companions" for men when they are treated equitably.

  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

Strains of misogyny and sexism permeate "Venus in Fur" (the play by Ives -- a distinct entity, mind you, from several film versions, as from the 2004 play by Steve Tanner, all of which are based directly on the novella). Ives’ meditation refutes the model that Sacher-Masoch puts forth -- women are subjugated by men unless they dominate men; a broader variation of the "Virgin / Whore" dichotomy -- but also seems, ultimately, to buy into it.

Let’s try to keep our Ps and Qs straightened out here. The 1870 novella concerns a nobleman named Severin, whose early life experiences include a first-rate (and somewhat eroticized) caning from an aunt. This links pain and erotic fulfillment for Severin, and in due course he acts upon his attraction to a noblewoman named Vanda by propositioning her with the following arrangement: He will be her slave; all she needs to do to win, and retain, his devotion is to punish and humiliate him.

The play by Ives posits another play in turn -- a direct adaptation of the novella to a stage version. We first meet playwright Thomas Novachek (Chris Kipiniak) in mid-tirade, complaining via cell phone to his fiancée. He’s adapted Sacher-Masoch’s novella, and even better, he’s set to make his debut as director. But now he’s hit a roadblock: none of the actresses who have auditioned thus far have had anything to offer. They all have little-girl voices; they all seem far younger and less defined than a woman of similar age in 1870 would have been.

  (Source:T. Charles Erickson)

Enter aspiring actress Vanda (Andrea Syglowski), in full foment -- not to mention S/M leather garb. (Between this getup and a few items of period clothing, costumer Charles Schoonmaker must have had a field day.) Not only does Vanda happen to have the same name as the female character in Thomas’ play, but she also (it becomes more apparent) has an intimate familiarity with the material at hand, even having memorized Thomas’ script ("I sort of flipped through it on the train," she shrugs). Though she seems utterly wrong for the part, Vanda coaxes and cajoles Thomas into giving her a reading, with himself in Severin’s role. She steps into an adjoining room in order to set the scene, and when she steps back through the door she’s transformed: The pushy, pert, and slightly trampy ingénue is now an actress of considerable talent and presence. She’s also a woman with fully formed opinions and magnetic sex appeal to match.

As they read Thomas’ version of the story, the two begin to form a connection. That connection swiftly morphs into a combination of a Meeting of Artistic Minds and Incipient Sexual Inferno. By degrees, their roles reverse: Thomas cedes the directorial reins, and even consents, at one point, to swap roles, taking on the part of domineering Vanda the literary figure (while flesh and blood Vanda asserts ever more control over him, and over the reading).

The play has carefully laid roots in realism, from Darron L. West’s convincing sound design and M. L. Geiger’s well fashioned lighting, to Matt Saunders’ deliberately mundane, slightly cluttered set. When things take a decidedly surreal turn (a la "The Mountaintop," produced last year at the Central Square Theater -- if you saw it, you’ll know what I mean), however, that suddenly-forsaken tone of realism doesn’t underscore the dramatically altered mood so much as undercut it. What was progressing nicely as an extreme, but believable, series of reversals and parallels abruptly does a Mobius bend into a completely different genre -- fantasy at best; camp at worst. Either way, you see it coming from a mile off, and once the transition takes place the play starts to unravel -- it’s as though the story’s foundations are collapsing in slow motion.

Daniel Goldstein previously directed "God of Carnage" at the BU Theatre, and then, as now, he lent tonally uneven (and overtly contrived) material a blistering immediacy, that overrode more rational concerns and let the audience surrender to his vision. Here, Goldstein’s direction seems designed to keep those early-planted, realistic roots intact and in place as long as possible. (That said, give him credit for going juicily, all-the-way crazy when the script calls for reality to evanesce.)

The actors follow suit, and do some fine work -- Syglowski in particular; her role is even more constantly and shockingly changeable than Kipiniak’s. But the script creates the narrative equivalent of a tidal wave, washing away everything we think we know about what’s been going on. This production doesn’t quite keep its balance in trying to surf that wave. The final minutes give Syglowski an outlandish chance to shine, and she seizes it, proving she has as much capacity for glamour as for any of the other modes required. But the play’s final beats carry no dramatic sting or intellectual payoff. Rather, they convey a giddy sense of hallucination... or, perhaps, nothing more than silliness.

"Venus in Fur," presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, continues through Feb. 2 at the BU Theater on the Avenue of the Arts. For tickets and more information, please visit www.huntingtontheatre.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook