Review: “Venus in Fur”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through April 13
Tickets: $25-$86
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic
 
David Ives’ 2010 “Venus in Fur” is good not-so-clean fun. Using the 1869 novella “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (for whom “masochism” is named) as a take-off point, Ives has created multilayered battle of the sexes that humorously dissects the intricacies of seduction, dominance and submission, and gender politics in the theater as well as life. Smart and sexy, thus almost guaranteed to be a commercial success as it was on Broadway, the satirical 100-minute play simultaneously skewers various absurd notions regarding the relationship between love and power.

The setup is simple. New York playwright Thomas Novacek has adapted Sacher-Masoch’s book — about a man who’s so infatuated with a woman he asks her to enslave him — into a play entitled “Venus in Fur” and plans to direct it himself. He’s just finished auditioning dozens of actresses for the lead role of Wanda and is on the phone railing to his fiance about how inept and stupid they all were, when in walks Vanda, a ditzy actress who admits to being hours late for an audition he can’t even find in his book. She fits the description of the young women he’s rejected to a T, including the carpetbag of costume bits and props she brings with her.

Despite her apparent unsuitability, Vanda steamrolls and cajoles Thomas into letting her try out for the part. Since his reader has gone home, he agrees to stand in as Severin von Kusiemski opposite her. As they get into the play-within-the-play, he’s stunned by her acting, the Sacher-Masoch characters and Ives’ start to merge, and the role playing, which of course involves humiliation and degradation, takes all sorts of twists and turns culminating in a pointed gender switch with someone (I won’t reveal who) tied to a pole.

Although I think we’re supposed to be taken by surprise and wonder about the identity of mystery woman Vanda who knows much more than she lets on, Goodman Theatre’s Chicago premiere directed by Joanie Schultz arguably telegraphs more than it should. The thunderstorm raging outside the grubby rehearsal room, a soaring former factory masterfully designed by Todd Rosenthal, is just one clue, and Ives throws in plenty of his own, exploiting classical allusions with aplomb.

Chicago actress Amanda Drinkall is a real asset as Vanda. Tall, leggy, and beautiful, she effortlessly switches from the shrill, scatter-brained, irritating supplicant who arrives wearing a dominatrix outfit and fake fur coat (costumes by Jenny Mannis) to the classy, composed, slightly imperious woman of the Sacher-Masoch adaptation … and well beyond. As she morphs, though, we begin to lose sight of a basic premise: that she’s an actress trying to get a part.

As the somewhat smug, frustrated, forty-something playwright who’s not used to getting what he wants, New York actor Rufus Collins is quite convincing. The way he’s gradually drawn in by Vanda works well, as do their arguments. But the chemistry between them isn’t strong enough, and the stakes never go high enough. When we see a character brandishing a knife or gun on stage, we should really fear a blood-letting, and that doesn’t happen here.

As an elaborate, essentially intellectual game, however, “Venus in Fur” is very entertaining. It may not be profound or explore the dimensions of sexual dominance and the potentially devastating consequences as well as, say, August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” but it’s a lot funnier, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.