A rookie director. A neurotic actress. Victorian Era BDSM. Wait... what? Venus in Fur, by Tony Award winning playwright David Ives, is a comical exploration of the power dynamics of relationships. It's funny, suspenseful, and sexy. What more could you want from entertainment?
The play opens with Thomas, a writer and first-time director who's searching for a perfect lead actress. He's adapted his beloved script from the 1870 novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The term "masochist" is derived from his name, so it should come as no surprise that the book portrays a man who's turned on by playing slave to his obsession, Wanda. Yes, even the morally sensible Victorians had their kinks. It's one of the first books ever written about a BDSM relationship. "It's like 50 Shades in 1870," laughs director Courtney Bates.
Thomas is losing hope in his hunt for a perfect Wanda when in comes a whirlwind of a woman who just happens to be named Vanda. What a coincidence. Flustered and brash, she seems far from Thomas' vision for his seductive lead... until they start reading lines. She's good. Maybe too good. "She comes in blazing with all these props she's using to try to prove that she's the best person for the job," says Maureen Wood who plays the part of Vanda. "She's like Mary Poppins meets BDSM," she laughs. "But I think, in a way, the play tries to show how it often truly is between men and women."
Power shifts back and forth between them, initially in Thomas' favor as the director confronted with a flaky, struggling actress, or so it seems. "She creates this sense of rapport with Thomas as soon as she comes in and has stroked his ego a little bit. She's playing him like a harp," says Bates. She repeatedly pokes holes in the script, asserting that it's nothing more than sexist, S&M porn. If this is how she feels, why is she so determined to play the dominatrix Wanda? And why does she do it so well? Is the play a power statement on misogyny or is it a glorification of human nature's freakier side?
If you're confused, you're not alone. The further Thomas and Vanda delve into their characters, the more muddled Thomas' convictions become. Soon, even he's unsure where reality begins and fictional fantasy ends. "Thomas is just likeable enough to get over how pompous he is," says Brett Leach, who plays Thomas. "It's really hard for him to deal with her challenges because he's an intellectual type. He wants to be right so very badly. He wants his baby to be brought to the stage exactly how he's conceived it in his mind. But he ends up learning some things about himself that he either wasn't ready to admit or he didn't know." Of course, we don't want to give away all the twists and turns and motives you'll find in the show. Vanda is a highly complex character who keeps Thomas and audience alike guessing what she's up to. "There's a lot that you can decipher from the show. It's definitely one you can watch more than once to get more from it," says Bates.
Venus in Fur consists of only a single act that thoroughly fleshes out (pun intended) the two characters. For Wood and Leach as the only two actors, it's a creative obstacle course. "There are challenges to having such a small cast," explains Bates. "It's a 90-minute show with no break, so the two of them spend the entire time on stage. There's a lot of dialogue. The actors really have to understand who these characters are. There's a lot of energy required by the show, especially for Maureen. Vanda's so neurotic and unpredictable, so Maureen has to bring that all the time." As for Leach, this is one of two scripts rolling around in his head lately. He's also playing the lead in 5th Wall Productions' presentation of The Pillowman. "I really have to give it up to Brett for that," says Bates. It takes talent to successfully tackle two scripts.
If BDSM isn't your scene, don't let that stop you from catching this show. There's much more going on here than ties and whips. Anyone who's been in a relationship can find humor in the psychological power play between Vanda and Thomas. "It's very funny," says Bates. "That can get lost in the discussion of power dynamics. There's a ton of humor in it. So we try to play that up and show there's a lighter side to these heavy concepts." Although, don't let the humor mislead you into bringing the kiddos. Bates suggests this show keep an audience of 18+.