Despite the phenomenal success of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, author E.L. James could learn a thing or two about writing kinky eroticism from a 19th century author and a 21st century playwright. (That sound? James laughing all the way to the bank.)
David Ives’ Venus in Fur, a Broadway hit with roots in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs, has kicked off GableStage’s 15th season in a production full of thunder, lightning and sexual tension. The play is funny, layered, mysterious and unsettling. Call it kink that makes you think.
Venus in Fur is an intricate, complex dance for two actors, one that has been choreographed exquisitely by director Joseph Adler. Thomas (Matthew William Chizever) is a playwright and director trying to cast his stage adaptation of the novella that spawned the word “masochism.” Vanda (Betsy Graver) is the actress who arrives after everyone else has gone home, exploding into the nondescript rehearsal space with a force similar to the storm raging outside. By the time their 90 minutes of interaction, role-playing and erotic interplay comes to an end, Thomas will find his world upended.
Ives’ play presents an acting challenge (and the opportunity to dazzle) to its two performers, who shift back and forth between the present-day audition and the sadomasochistic world of Thomas’ script.
In one moment, auditioning Vanda (who, not at all coincidentally, shares the first name of the character in Thomas’ play) seems to be a cheeky, shallow contemporary woman who has come to her audition dressed like a dominatrix. Then she dons a sheer white ruffled dress, acquires a British accent and becomes the controlling, irresistible object of desire from the novella and play. Thomas flips from the American playwright who finds his own script important and fascinating to reading the role of Kushemski, the nobleman who wants nothing more (or less) than to become the love slave of 19th century Vanda. As the play surges back and forth between the two worlds, the balance of power between the playwright-director and the auditioning actress shifts radically.
Chizever, making a long overdue GableStage debut, uses his seductive voice like a virtuoso musician. The most erotic moment of the play belongs to him, as he relates the life-altering experience that linked the sensuality of fur and the pleasure of pain in Kushemski’s erotic DNA. Because Vanda is the showier part in Venus in Fur, actors playing Thomas can be overwhelmed by the force of a bravura female lead. That never happens with the artful Chizever.
Thanks to costume designer Ellis Tillman, the beautiful Graver certainly looks the part of Vanda, domineering in black lingerie, boots and a dog collar, more demure yet still provocative in that white gown. Her character is all about deception and a concealed agenda, so that when it turns out that this crude and scattered young woman really can act, the audience is as surprised as Thomas. Though her dual versions of Vanda eventually coalesce into a more-than-worthy opponent for Thomas, Graver at first plays Vanda as if the actress is a valley girl airhead who has overdosed on energy drinks. Dialing that initial iteration of Vanda back a few notches wouldn’t hurt a bit.
Still, Chizever and Graver eventually achieve all that dramatic thunder and lightning (with a major assist from sound designer Matt Corey and lighting designer Jeff Quinn), and Venus in Fur becomes in intellectually and emotionally provocative experience, despite the fact that nobody gets naked and no one gets hurt. There’s a lesson in that, E.L. James.