Venus in Fur is about sexual domination, but not one person over another. Although, there's a bit of that too. Rather, David Ives' play is about BDSM of the soul, the masochism of humanity and the perversion of artistry. It's about the self-flagellation necessary to bring a play to fruition, the complex pain of communicating your inner being with another human, and the kinks deeply rooted in all of us.
Now playing in WaterTower Theatre's studio space after a run at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre, Venus in Fur is a sexy success by director Krista Scott, who pushes the actors around the space, dropping hints about the complicated themes of mythology and sexual duality that only fully reveal themselves in the play's final moments.
Of course, the plot starts in an audition room, with a ragged playwright searching for a leading lady to tackle the role of Vanda in his adaptation of the19th century Austrian novel, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (from whose name we derive the word masochism). The playwright, Thomas (Chris Hury), nearly loses hope that he will find the right actress when who should enter but an inexcusably late but inexplicably perfect Wanda (Allison Pistorius). She even pronounces her name with a Germanic 'W,' signaling an inextricable connection with the title character.
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A frantic, yet charming Wanda coerces a world-weary Thomas into letting her read for the role, in spite of the fact that she considers it to be nothing more than sexist pornography. When she speaks the first line, she easily adopts a Mitteleuropa dialect, transforming from a bumbling actress into a mysterious goddess. Thomas is as dumbstruck by Wanda's metamorphosis as the audience and waves off a dinner date with his fiancee to read lines with her. But this play is not about reading another play, so very quickly the distinctions between Wanda and Vanda grow fainter. When, at his request, Vanda turns the male character into a slave, she begins to call him Thomas. Or is it real life Wanda calling real life Thomas, Thomas?
Slowly the two plays converge into one, intersecting character with human and reality with fantasy. And what you thought was just an audition explodes into an exploration about the mythologies upon which we build our lives. To reach its climatic moment, the play prods the psychology of inspiration and penetrates the unfulfilling gender roles we've assigned to one another. Throughout the play, Wanda accuses Thomas of misogynistic intentions for his characters, only to force him to read the lines of Vanda. He takes pleasure in reading the lines of the female role, as she gives up her dominance to submit to the male character. It seems he has created characters that reflect his sexual duality, and he wants to be punished, both in reality and in his fictions. In the final moments of the play, it becomes impossible to distinguish between the two.
The pedestal upon which this play sits is the acting of Pistorius and Hury. She slips from a manic dynamism as Wanda into a seductive, cool Vanda with the ease of someone sliding into a bubble bath. And Hury's journey from impatient snot to befuddled obsessive is steeped in a sense of realism. It's not impossible to believe we're flies on the wall in his audition gone erratic (or erotic, rather). Watching them move about the stage as they flirt, tease and fight is tantalizing and worth the price of admission.
See Venus in Fur is at WaterTower Theatre through May 18. Tickets start at $22.