Venus in Furs
Who knew that Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch could be so entertaining? Especially with a name like that. Who knew that S & M, named after the very same Sacher-Masoch without the von, could be so much fun? Readers are not required to answer the last question for the usual reasons, but really, folks, go check out Venus in Furs at the Studio Theatre, where playwright David Ives’ take on the 19th-century novella by Sacher-Masoch of the same title is being staged (by Studio Artistic Director David Muse), with bravura intensity, wit, and high energy.
And yes, it is about sado masochism, but it’s also about power and men and women and actors and directors, so just about everyone can have some fun with this, not excluding politicians, but perhaps prudes should attend only if they leave their noses at the door.
Here’s the take: a director named Thomas is holding auditions for a play based on the very same novel in a shabby New York studio, looking for the role of an aristocratic woman named Vanda who engages in a kinky power struggle with a man named Severin Kushemski, who, affected strongly as a boy by tannings at the hands of an imperious aunt who wore furs looks for a special love at the hands of a strong woman. Knock knock, who’s there, but a seemingly crass pop tart named, wow, Vanda, complete in thigh high, plastic shiny boots, a snarky, loud attitude and a bag full of surprising goodies. Imagine Mary Poppins carrying a big full of whips, corsets and none-such. She wants to read for the part, he wants to go home to dinner with his fiancée. Vanda sounds as if she’s never read anything longer than a parking ticket let alone a 19th-century novel, but she’s also pushy, whiny and bossy in a sort of sexy way.
Thomas gives in and lets her read and lo and behold, something happens: the near-Brooklyn, streisanesque mouthings disappear, and out come rounded vowels, tight enunciations and poetic line readings. What is going on here? As they continue on, with Thomas taking the male lead, they seem to not only come closer together, but also to inhabit the parts to a degree that’s completely changing our perception of them. There are subtle, and then shocking power shifts going on, with the help of more and more kinky costumes and lighting.
The novel is a story about a man who seduces a woman into doing things she insists are against her nature—i.e., finding ever new ways to torture, humiliate and punish the man she’s obviously attracted to. The course of true love was never this twisted, but it’s also funny, kind of thrilling in its own way, perhaps erotic to some or one and all, you pick.
And quite frankly, most of that is due to the Vanda of this play, a young actress named Erica Sullivan, whose transformative gifts are award-worthy, and awe-inducing. She goes from slutty, bad-mouthing, down-to-earth and off a walk-up apartment struggling actress to svelte, graceful, classy, educated, vaporous Vanda on a dime, back and forth until she makes you dizzy.
The relationship between director and actors is of course all about power as well as collaboration, it’s always about seeing eye-to-eye or succumbing. But it’s the brash, crude Vanda who pushes Thomas into submitting to the novel’s Vanda, and apparently his own predilections. It’s an often physical struggle—there’s lots of grabbing, pushing, positioning, approximating a rough courtship, with no safe word.
Watching this, with a very involved audience who laughed, apparently in the right places, and were startled in the right places, I kept thinking of an old joke: Masochist to Sadist: Beat me, beat me. Sadist to Masochist: No.
And so it goes: in this play, so tightly paced, without intermission, heading towards a conclusion that maybe isn’t quite the shock or surprise it should be, it’s a real fight for love and glory, a sweaty, rough-and-tumble sexy brawl.
You have to ask, where did Vanda—who said she’d glanced at the script on the subway—get this perfect memorization, this well-spring of motivation, this spell-binding perfection? It looks like a gift from the gods. Maybe it is. But there’s no uncertainty about Ms. Sullivan. She too, is a gift from the gods. Venus in Furs runs at Studio Theatre through July 3