Where: Goodman Theatre Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through April 13
By ANNE SPISELMAN
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-Masochs book about a man whos so infatuated with a woman he asks her to enslave him into a play entitled Venus in Fur and plans to direct it himself. Hes 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 cant even find in his book. She fits the description of the young women hes 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, hes 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 wont reveal who) tied to a pole.
Although I think were supposed to be taken by surprise and wonder about the identity of mystery woman Vanda who knows much more than she lets on, Goodman Theatres 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 shes an actress trying to get a part.
As the somewhat smug, frustrated, forty-something playwright whos not used to getting what he wants, New York actor Rufus Collins is quite convincing. The way hes gradually drawn in by Vanda works well, as do their arguments. But the chemistry between them isnt 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 doesnt 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 Strindbergs Miss Julie, but its a lot funnier, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.