BWW Reviews: VENUS IN FUR Thrills at the Fulton Theatre
In 1870 an Austrian writer, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, startled the German-speaking literary world with "Venus in Furs," a short novel about a man who feels compelled to be dominated by women, who believes that women's cruelty fuels men's desire. Much of the material presumably was derived from his own life. Masoch wound up with the distinction of having the word "masochism" named for him. One hundred forty years later, playwright David Ives derived dark comedy from the book, creating VENUS IN FUR originally Off-Broadway and then on Broadway with Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy. And then there's Roman Polanski's film adaptation (it's worth biting one's tongue on the jokes that Polanski's directing this bring to mind).
VENUS IN FUR is now on stage at the Fulton Theatre, in the new Ellen Arnold Groff theatre, a 99-seat house on the fourth floor of the building, designed to house smaller, edgier works. Presumably, for the Lancaster area, VENUS IN FUR falls in the very edgy category, though for Off-Broadway it's less controversial and more immediately clearly a classic work. It's the story of Thomas, translator/playwright of an adaptation of the Masoch novel, auditioning actresses for the role of Wanda (or Vanda) Dunayev (in real life, Masoch's acquaintance, novelist Fanny Pistor), the dubious heroine of the story.
Fulton Artistic Director Marc Robin keeps the comic element of the original play, though he's taken it a shade darker yet, and one's interpretation of the ending of the play may vary from what they saw if they saw Ives' play in New York because of it. Without revealing too much, Robin's artistic intention seems to be fueled by the playwright character, Thomas', discourse on the Bacchae early in the show.
Thomas is played by actor Logan James Hall, who brings clear enthusiasm as well as a definite edge to the role of frustrated director. Hanley Smith, who played Fantine in the Fulton's LES MISERABLES last season, shines brighter as Vanda Jordan - if that is indeed her real name, a young blonde actress who blows in (literally) as a ditzy creature that puts Judy Holliday to shame for fluster and bluster. She's late for auditions for Thomas' new play based on his translating the novel, and she's desperate for a reading.
After some dizzying cajoling, she convinces Thomas to do a read-through with her, and that's when the black magic... perhaps literal magic... starts. Thomas, ostensibly a modern, sophisticated man, turns out to be far less so than he thinks, and Vanda, who looks like a vapid sex bombshell, turns out to be far better versed in the sexual aspects of gender politics than is Thomas, as well as far better versed in Masoch's writing, though she claims to have had no idea of the connection between his name and the activity. Is Thomas less than he thinks he is? Is Vanda more than he thinks she is?
Scarily, gender dynamics may not have changed much since 1870. Even more scarily, given Thomas' occasional references to Greek theatre, with which Vanda again turns out to be surprisingly familiar, some gender dynamics haven't changed much since antiquity. Thomas' fear, and his play's character, Severin's, worship, of the vagina dentata is primal male reaction to woman, and Vanda is here, if anything, the living embodiment of the vagina dentata. The fluffly-looking creature bites far harder than Thomas can ever anticipate, and he, like his Severin, responds.
VENUS IN FUR plays gender politics for everything they're worth, and ultimately stands them on their ear. Thomas seems repressed, but has an inner reprobate waiting to escape. The silly sex kitten is a lion. And fur, though ubiquitous as a reference to Masoch and as a symbol, is ultimately the least of the concerns between them. Robin's direction underscores the darkness that lies in the heart of sex and in relations between the genders, and makes the comedy not relief but as oppressive at times as the moments of fear. It's an unrelenting play, as the original novel is equally unrelenting.
The Groff is an interesting venue for this play. With its small size and its thrust stage, the audience is very much in the same room as the audition, nearly on top of the action on stage. The intimacy lends itself to reflection by audience members as to whether they themselves fall into the dynamic on stage. It's a far different relationship with the play than one has seeing it several rows back on a proscenium stage, far rawer and more visceral. One can't avoid reacting to the onstage action, while being close enough to the cast to become a third force in the show.
Ives has given a beautiful, Tony-nominated, script about a play within a play, with players who are themselves not what they seem, piling allusion upon allusion. Robin's choice to make the audition area a former set for MY FAIR LADY only increases the metaphors; what most people consider to be a sweet, simple, classic musical was in fact (the story line was, after all, created by Shaw) a gender politics dance of its own, in which the controlling Professor Higgins is ultimately dominated by the woman of his own creation.
VENUS IN FUR is well worth seeing and contemplating. There are caveats. It's a raw, painful play that one can't avoid reacting to. It's blatantly sexual, with partial nudity, raw language, and sexual situations, including fetish ones. If you're not prepared for that, you're best off avoiding it. It's not for your children (unless they're remarkably advanced) or your elderly maiden aunt (unless she's remarkably advanced). It's not calm; it's not a feel-good play or a happy ending. If you like your humor dark, if you like to tackle the human condition head-on, if you like Faulkner, if you thrive on metaphor, it's a mandatory show. It's a limited run, only through March 8, with limited seating, so make reservations immediately. Visit thefulton.org for tickets and information.