BWW Reviews: KickstArt Gets Clever and Kinky with VENUS IN FUR
In Christopher Hampton's LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, Rosamonde says "The only thing which might surprise one is how little the world changes." This is certainly one thought that comes to mind upon viewing David Ives's VENUS IN FUR, a contemporary play inspired by Leopold van Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel VENUS IN FURS. Exploring some of the same thematic territory as Hampton's study of sex as power, with a detour through the motifs and imagery generated in Jean Genet's THE MAIDS, VENUS IN FUR seeks to deconstruct the semiotics of erotic literature like its source material, as well as perceptions of the BDSM culture as a lifestyle founded in misogyny and the act of making theatre, itself a representative art form that often relies on a negotiation of the boundary between dominance and submission.
Ives's play starts off in a fairly innocuous fashion, apparently a backstage comedy in which writer-director Thomas Novachek laments the difficulties of finding an actress to play the leading role in his new play. Enter Vanda Jordan, an actress who seems to exemplify every single one of the vices Thomas has just listed on the phone to his fiancé. Just as the original Sacher-Masoch text takes the form of a novel-within-a-novel, Ives pushes the characters into a play-within-a-play as Thomas reluctantly begins to audition Vanda. As the pair reads from the script, Vanda transforms flawlessly into Vanda Dunayev, a character in Thomas's play who seeks out writer Severin Kushemski and embarks with him on a so-called "suprasensual" journey that challenges the restrictions of the sexually repressed society in which they find themselves. As the reading of the play continues, the lines between reality, play and fantasy are blurred and this transforms the play into an enthralling study of gender, sex and power. Filled with references to figures from antiquity, such as Aphrodite and Venus (the original and the copy, as introduced in classic Greek and Roman mythology) and the apocryphal Biblical figure Judith (who used her sexuality to conquer and decapitate Holofernes), the play is rich and dense. It is perhaps even slightly overwritten and Ives could have sweated about five or ten minutes off the script.
VENUS IN FUR premiered Off-Broadway in 2010, transferring to Broadway in 2011, receiving two Tony Award nominations in the process, for Best Play and Best Actress. Although VENUS IN FUR lost out to CLYBOURNE PARK - soon to be seen in Cape Town under the auspices of Play Club - when the awards were presented, Nina Arianda won the Best Actress trophy for what was by all accounts a trailblazing performance as Vanda. This production is presented in South Africa by KickstArt in collaboration with Pieter Toerien, a partnership that has seen productions that originated in KickstArt's home base in Kwazulu-Natal, such as CABARET, RED and DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER, travel to Cape Town and Johannesburg.
As implied by Arianda's aforementioned win and her consequential rise to prominence after playing the role, a production of VENUS IN FUR is likely to stand or fall by the performance of the actress playing Vanda. The play is a two-hander, but Thomas is constructed as a conduit for the audience's experience of what occurs on stage. It is Vanda's show. In Janna Ramos-Violante, KickstArt has found a convincing Vanda. Ramos-Violante not only captures, but also sends up the crude caricature of modern day actresses that Thomas constructs in his opening monologue, and completely destroys it when she transforms into the mysterious and captivating Vanda of Thomas's play.
As Thomas, Neil Coppen captures the character's initial uprightness and uptightness, then strips away all of that neurotic self-importance to reveal a mixture of fascination, fear and excitement as his Venus remakes him in her own image. The two play off one another superbly. In a play that, at its core, examines the nature of human relationships, Ramos-Violante and Coppen negotiate each shift the play throws at them nimbly, stripping away the layers of artifice that have been built up around Sacher-Masoch's narrative and the ideas he introduced into the mainstream consciousness over time.
Director Steven Stead paces VENUS IN FUR carefully, assiduously navigating his way through the many changes in perspective that Ives has hidden within the play text. While the tension builds well, making for some powerful moments of suspense, the piece plays out in a fashion that almost seems a little too cautious. As such, when the play moves into really dangerous territory, it never feels quite as threatening as it could.
The design of the stage space, with sets by Greg King and lighting by Tina le Roux, works best when the play shifts out of the purposefully bland studio space in which the piece is set. When the lights dim and transform the set with colour, allowing the actors' shadows to come out and play, VENUS IN FUR springs vividly to life. The flatter, "real life" environment of the studio is less well executed. The palate feels too bright and the space too decisively drawn for Ive's evocative writing.
Whether VENUS IN FUR is a play for our age or one for the ages is up for debate and remains to be seen. In a world obsessed by the BDSM musings of E. L. James in her FIFTY SHADES OF GREY series, a literary phenomenon that undermines the feminist movement with its success in forcing intelligent readership into submission, at least VENUS IN FUR ends on a note that can be embraced by feminists. The ultimate irony, of course, is that VENUS IN FUR is written by a man, has been directed by men in both its American and South African premieres and even directed by a man - Roman Polanski - for its French film adaptation, LA VÉNUS Á LA FOURRURE, which premiered at Cannes in May. These men join others, like Hampton and Genet and even August Strindberg with his classic MISS JULIE, in their exploration of this territory. As Rosamonde observed, "The only thing which might surprise one is how little the world changes."
VENUS IN FUR runs until 22 June May 2013 at Theatre in the Bay in Cape Town before transferring to Pieter Toerien's Studio Theatre at Montecasino in Johannesburg for a run from 17 July - 25 August. Tickets for both the Cape Town and Johannesburg runs can be booked at Computicket.
Photo Credit: Val Adamson