Editors' pick

Venus in Fur


Editorial Review

Review of ‘Venus in Fur’ at Studio Theatre

By Peter Marks
Friday, June 3, 2011

“Who are you, Vanda Jordan?” the intrigued stage director asks of the bewitching auditioner in David Ives’s invigoratingly playful comedy “Venus in Fur.” And, indeed, this becomes the evening’s operative question, for in the enchanting person of Erica Sullivan, Vanda turns the simple act of role-playing into a seductive contest with wildly carnal implications.

Director David Muse’s rollicking Studio Theatre production pits Sullivan’s surprisingly resourceful Vanda against the splendid Christian Conn’s sexually submissive Thomas Novachek, adapter and director of the play in which Vanda so desperately wants to be cast. Desire and power, and how they are wielded in rehearsal rooms as well as bedrooms, give this frisky exercise its metier, which Ives exploits in multiply tangy ways.

Ives is one of the cleverest playwrights around, as he has demonstrated of late in Washington with the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Liar,” his pun-crazed adaptation of Corneille, and Theater J’s “New Jerusalem,” a play that treated the life of the philosopher Spinoza with such absorbing sophistication that the company is reprising its production next season. His grasp of the comedic ballast needed to keep an audience floating through potentially dense material is his keenest gift, a facility on display once again in “Venus in Fur” — even if this new play ultimately gives itself away too cutely.

Because Ives explores other gleeful notions — especially concerning the mysteries of an actor’s transformation — “Venus in Fur” never diverges too harmfully from its lively premise. It’s not a major work, just a smart scoopful of fun, a delectably compressed actors’ pas-de-deux of a sort for which ambitious actors might undergo a root canal — twice. By virtue of her success as Vanda in the play’s premiere off-Broadway, for instance, actress Nina Arianda proceeded to the new Broadway revival of “Born Yesterday,” for which she is Tony-nominated.

The part, one hopes, will yield fruitful results for Sullivan as well: It’s sure-fire, particularly in the play’s early movements, after Vanda arrives in the drab, florescent-lighted room where Thomas has been holding disappointing auditions all day. He’s seeking to cast the lead in his play, also called “Venus in Fur,” which he’s adapted from a racy 19th-century Austrian novella, “Venus in Furs,” about a man with a fetish for being dominated by women.

Which is why Sullivan’s Vanda — sounding like the ditsy type for whom waiting tables might be too complicated — shows up (late) for her audition in leather bustier and dog collar. The ensuing session grows increasingly intense: Thomas becomes ever more infatuated with Vanda, who’s reading for a character who also happens to be named Vanda. Hmm. The play’s most dependably funny interludes are those in which Sullivan segues from Vanda the actress to Vanda the temptress and back again; she’s a riff on Eliza in “Pygmalion,” a woman whose intelligence emerges as her vowels grow rounder.

The gamesmanship unfolds simultaneously, in two realities: Thomas and Vanda as antagonists in Thomas’s play; and Thomas and Vanda, contemporary director and actress. The control that Thomas the director seeks to maintain over actress Vanda in the audition is a counterpoint to what occurs in the 1870 play-within-a-play, set at a spa in Carpathia: Thomas’s character craves nothing so much as total powerlessness. He pleads with the character of Vanda to make him her slave.

In its dissection of the motives of the playwright-adapter — a role Ives himself has played often in real life — “Venus in Fur” also toys self-consciously with the idea that Thomas chose the novella because he and the character are of the same passionate predilections. (Aren’t all acts of creation informed by the libido?) The play suggests, too, that male writers need to be called to account for the spurious generalizations they’ve spread about women down through the ages. Or perhaps “Venus in Fur” is simply one man’s Freudian nightmare.

Ives drops fairly obvious hints about where this muscularly paced, 90-minute piece is headed, which weakens the potential wallop at the end. One wishes he hadn’t been quite so scrupulous in dotting every i. Still, the performances are so gratifyingly well matched — Conn, with his Colin Firth-y charm, vs. the flirtatiously all-American Sullivan — that the heat melts away any residual resistance.

Muse began his first season as Studio’s artistic director by staging “Circle Mirror Transformation,” a wise comedy set in a community-center acting class. His directorial bookend for the season is another funny play about acting: “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism,” Vanda says at one point. “I’m in the theater.” With Muse confidently at the helm on evenings like this one, we’re all buckled in happily for the pain and the pleasure.

By David Ives. Directed by David Muse. Set, Blythe R.D. Quinlan; lighting, Michael Lincoln; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; dialects, Gary Logan. About 90 minutes.

'Venus in Fur' at Studio Theatre

By Stephanie Merry
Thursday, May 19, 2011

The life of an actor requires tolerance for humiliation. Just ask Christian Conn and Erica Sullivan, the stars of Studio Theatre's new play, "Venus in Fur." Tracking down jobs and auditioning can be exhilarating, but more often than not, it's demoralizing.

"I think that's why actors are such strange creatures," Conn says. "Because your life is a series of rejections, from the moment when you're getting torn apart and criticized in school to when you get out and you can't get an agent; you get an agent and you can't get an audition; you get rejected at audition after audition. It's just criticism and rejection."

Perhaps it's appropriate, then, that "Venus" looks at the audition process through the prism of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel, "Venus in Furs," the story of a man with a fetish for female domination that inspired the term "masochism." David Ives's play follows an actress, Vanda (Sullivan), auditioning for a stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's book. The director, Thomas (Conn), starts out with the upper hand -- as directors often do -- but Vanda, concealing a surprising getup underneath her raincoat, makes a bid for supremacy. As the power shifts, so does the setting, alternating between the audition room and the staging of the novel -- a Victorian-set play within a play.

Conn calls the intermissionless "Venus" a titillating "90-minute tease," but it also offers a peek into casting protocol, a world in which even simple greetings can be loaded with awkward uncertainty.

"Some directors will approach you. They will get up and come at you, and you think, 'Yeah, we're going to shake hands,' " Conn says.

"And some won't get up at all," Sullivan adds.

"And some will come up to shake hands and then say, 'Oh, no, no, no, I have a cold,' " Conn recalls.

"Or, 'It's flu season,' " his costar says.

"And sometimes you believe them and sometimes you won't, and sometimes that will make you angry at them or put you off on the wrong foot," Conn says. "It's this whole strange dynamic."

This charged process is one actors endure relentlessly, which means there was plenty of fodder for the "Venus" cast to draw upon. Some of the most dispiriting inspiration, the pair agree, comes courtesy of casting calls for TV commercials. ("Talk about not even feeling like a human," Sullivan says.)

One of Conn's most horrifying commercial auditions was also one of his first. An agent sent him to audition for the role of what turned out to be a middle-aged Latino street juggler.

"I got into the room and not only was I not Latino or middle-aged, but I could not juggle nearly as well [as they wanted]," Conn says. "They were like, 'Can you do some things where you go over your head, around your back, under your leg?' . . . They were like, 'Put this hat on and catch the balls in the hat at the end,' and it was just a mess. I was a disaster."

For anyone who has suffered such indignities, there's something strangely fulfilling about watching the underdog command the upper hand.

"You know what's so great about this [play]?" Sullivan says. "The way [Vanda] sort of takes over the room and she makes the room her own. So many actors walk into a room and they don't know how to move their body. . . .Vanda swoops into the room and takes it over. I admire that," Sullivan says. "I'm going to do that in my next audition. Mark my words."