Friday, September 26, 2014

The Fur Trade: Reinventing "Venus" for the Stage

by Andy Knight

Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige in Venus in Fur.
Bringing Venus to Life

SCR is delighted to welcome back director Casey Stangl to helm its production of David Ives’ steamy comedy. Stangl has directed on SCR’s stages a number of times, including Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play, Sofia Alvarez’s Between Us Chickens and many Theatre for Young Audiences productions.

Director Casey Stangl
Stangl is no stranger to Venus in Fur. Earlier this year, she directed a production of the play for American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. With that production under her belt, Stangl was excited to revisit Venus in Fur in an all new production at SCR. “The play is so rich in character and in its exploration of gender and power,” Stangl says, “I'm looking forward to new discoveries!”

Venus in Fur’s two actors have a daunting task. They have to be adept at not only broad comedy and period-style acting, but also at the utmost sincerity—and their chemistry is essential to the production’s success. SCR is lucky to have actors more than up for the challenge. SCR audiences will recognize Graham Hamilton (Becky Shaw, Saturn Returns and Hamlet) in the role of Thomas, but many might not know Jaimi Paige (Vanda), who makes her SCR debut. Venus in Fur is not the first time that Hamilton and Paige have shared the stage; last season, they appeared in a stirring production of Philip Ridley’s Tender Napalm, which won them raves from both audiences and critics.

Stangl also assembled a first-rate design team to bring the play’s surprising world to life, including Scenic Designer Keith Mitchell, (Fast Company), Costume Designer David Kay Michelson (Five Mile Lake, The Parisian Woman), Lighting Designer Elizabeth Harper (Reunion) and Sound Designer Jeff Polunas (last season’s TYA musical Ivy + Bean).

More information on Venus in Fur’s cast and creative team can be found on SCR’s website.
David Ives’ Venus in Fur begins at the end of an afternoon full of unsuccessful auditions. Thomas Novachek still hasn’t found the right actress to play Vanda, the lead character in his stage adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 erotic novel Venus in Furs.

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:

David Ives
“I found myself electrified,” he recalls. “Dramaturgically electrified, I mean, because the relationship between Severin and Wanda, the two lovers of the plot, seemed to dramatize itself without the intervention of a playwright’s hands. Unlike Story of O, Venus in Furs sparks with the friction of two buttoned up people in an erotic power play who challenge, resist and disagree with each other even while bound by mutual sexual attraction. That sure sounded dramatic to me.”

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.

Learn more and buy tickets.

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