|Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige in Venus in Fur.|
Thomas has a lot on the line: he not only wrote the adaptation, but also plans to direct the production. Everything has to be perfect. Now, alone in his rented rehearsal space in New York City, the exasperated Thomas bemoans the lack of skilled and sexy actresses to his fiancé over the phone. Outside, a storm rages.
A crash of thunder and lightning not only interrupts Thomas’ phone call, but also announces the unexpected arrival of a young actress. She introduces herself as Vanda, a strange coincidence—well it’s actually Wanda, she explains, but her parents called her Vanda—and she has a litany of excuses for why she is late to the auditions. Thomas, certain that this scattered and clueless real-life Vanda isn’t right for the clever and poised Vanda in the play, tries to dismiss her. But she’s persistent, and Thomas finally lets Vanda read for the part. Since everyone else has gone home for the day, he agrees to read with her.
Once they begin, Thomas is shocked by Vanda’s skilled performance and then by Vanda herself. She seems to simultaneously know nothing and everything about what she’s performing. Thomas’ play tells a story of sexual dominance and submission, and as Thomas and Vanda continue reading, the real world and the world of the play begin to blur together. Soon, role-playing takes on more than one meaning, and the sexual tension that fills the rehearsal studio threatens to become something much more dangerous.
Like Thomas, Venus in Fur's playwright David Ives had originally intended to write a more faithful adaptation of an erotic novel. That novel, however, was not Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, but instead the French novel Story of O, a very different—and much more explicit—examination of sexual submission. That adaptation never came to fruition because, as Ives wrote in an article printed before Venus in Fur’s Broadway run, Story of O “is fundamentally undramatic. If your main character submits on page one, where’s the drama?” So, Ives turned his attention to Venus in Furs next, which proved more inspiring:
Ives’ first draft of Venus in Fur adapted its source material faithfully, but the playwright quickly came to realize that it wasn’t successful. After a rewrite, Ives had a play that examined the novel’s central relationship in a new setting and with a fresh set of circumstances. The novel’s 19th century Austria became present-day New York City; the six-month love affair in the novel became a brief tryst in a play told in real time. “I don’t know what spurred me to take the route I took,” Ives wrote.
No matter his inspiration, Ives’ Venus in Fur cleverly converses with its source material in both explicit and subtle ways.
The play-within-the-play directly connects the audience to the original text, which in turn allows Ives to find more oblique parallels between his modern day characters and their literary counterparts. By changing the initial nature of the relationship to that between an actor and a director, for example, Ives simulates a power dynamic that may evoke the gender hierarchy of the 19th century. In that context, the audience can quickly identify who’s in power and, more importantly, recognize when things begin to shift.
Perhaps the play’s greatest departure from Sacher-Masoch’s novel is that it is a comedy. To those familiar with Ives’ body of work, however, this should be no surprise. Ives first gained national attention as a writer of short comedies when All in the Timing, an evening of six plays, premiered off-Broadway at Primary Stages in 1993. All in the Timing and Time Flies, another collection of short comedies, are the epitome of Ives’ singular style—writing that boasts bold, witty humor, mixed with keen insights. Ives is also no stranger to adaptation; he’s the translator/adaptor of a few classic French plays, including Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear and Molière’s The Misanthrope, which he retitled A School for Lies.
Venus in Fur combines Ives’ special brand of humor, his skill for thoughtful adaptation and a dynamic relationship. Together they make a unique theatrical experience: a funny, titillating and peculiar rollercoaster.
Early in the play, Vanda quips, “Anyway, you don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism. I’m in the theatre,” and with Venus in Fur Ives proves that the theatre is the perfect place to become an expert.
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