According to the annual survey in American Theatre magazine, Venus in Fur is the most produced play in Equity theaters across the nation today, and on Capital Rep’s stage it’s not hard to see why. David Ives’ comic wit and learning abound; it is an inexpensive two-actor show with simple costuming; the running time tops out at a brisk 90 minutes sans intermission; and there’s a patina of eroticism, like a thongless Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Save for a dozen or so “fucks” spewed about, Venus in Fur is easy to swallow for theatergoers—and whipping up a little frothy controversy over its S&M backstory would keep only the most fundamentally devoted home-schooled away. Not even the Tea Party could shut the play down, and productions are currently running in Milwaukee, Atlanta, and even Salt Lake City (soon to open in Cleveland, before popping up like Starbucks across the country and in Canada). Venus in Fur is the “safe word” for American theater executive producers this year.
Capital Rep artistic director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill once again succeeds in taking a slightly edgy, recent New York theater smash and spreading its charms forcefully yet lovingly across the stage—as with productions of Race, Red and God of Carnage. The stagecraft at Capital Rep is perfect for Venus in Fur. There is Ted Simpson’s dingy red brick wall audition-rehearsal loft, replete with dirty white columns upstage center with every rehearsal room’s most needed piece (a coffeemaker always full) tucked in the upstage left nook; and, center stage, three towering windows, glass dirty so it blocks images but lets in light. Lighting flashes and thunder sounds at just the right moments—literally, this is the embodiment of “a dark and stormy night” cliché—in (respectively) Rachel Budin’s and Steve Stevens’s lighting and sound designs, with the lights mysteriously switching from the fluorescent of a rehearsal space to the candlelight of the play-within-a-play setting, as the birch switch fills the air with its stinging swish. The metal studs on the cliché black-leather S&M costumes are a fine counterpoint to the studs of the stage-right divan, whose dried-blood color suits the mood of the space and the action.
The acting captures the show-off, sell-conscious bottom of Venus in Fur’s aesthetic. It’s a play about an audition for a play adapted from a novel that has a novel within it. One has to peel away a lot to find any truth, and playwright Ives seems more interested in showing off than baring souls.
As the actress late for an audition, Vanda, Jenny Strassburg shows off her brassy Brooklyn accent and black leather dress, then does a shiveringly believable shift to the cool Wanda (pronounced “Vanda”) von Danayev, upper-crust antagonist of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel, Venus in Furs (Wanda von Danayev is also the name of the woman Sacher-Masoch married). Sacher-Masoch is the source of the term “masochism,” as actress Vanda points out to much audience giggling. Strassburg’s accents shift with the same alacrity costumes are shed and changed as the crass actress pushes for an audition as Vanda, the goddess of Sacher-Masoch’s novel.
As playwright-director Thomas Novachek, Timothy Dennihan (star of Stageworks/Hudson’s Tomorrow in the Battle, in addition to numerous Capital Rep roles) shows off his physique, his firm timing and his command of accents. Novachek and Strassburg amuse themselves with their broadening German accents as they read rehearsal sides of the theatrical adaptation of S-M’s Vanda and Severin love affair. The shifts in character and intentions, accents and costumes are the stuff that theatrical fun is made on.
Yet hiding in all this showing off is a potentially revelatory riff on the “Pygmalion and Galatea” love transformation myth. The sculptor Pygmalion, contemptuous of women and love, cares only for his art, pouring his soul and desire into his statue of a woman, so much so that he prays to Venus for a woman just like his statue; she grants his prayer. Thomas the playwright and would-be director rejects actress after actress at his audition: He shouts “there are no women” like the character he’s created from Sacher-Masoch’s novel, and the lightning flashes, thunder crashes, his phone call to his fiancée goes dead, and in barges Vanya, the actress literally carrying all her baggage. There are moments in Venus in Fur when Thomas and Vanya plumb Severin and Vanya’s motivations, both as theatrical adaptations of their characters (Galatea) and as playwright and actress (Pygmalion).
This engaging exploration gets swamped by the deus ex machina ending, but when Ives the playwright isn’t forcing actors and directors to indulge their exhibitionism, Venus in Fur rises above Fifty Shades of Grey faux naughtiness.