Venus in Fur
Also see Susan's review of A Time to Kill
Venus in Fur, David Ives' entertaining play receiving its Washington premiere at the Studio Theatre, is all about demonstrations of power: on the surface, the unequal relationship between a playwright-director and an auditioning actress; on a deeper level, questions of dominance, submission, and what men and women really want.
Ives takes his inspiration and his title from a scandalous 1870 novel ("Venus in Furs") by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the man who gave his name to the term masochism. Thomas (Christian Conn) has written a stage adaptation of the novel, in which an aimless nobleman named Severin begs the beautiful, autocratic Vanda Dunayev to dominate him completely and treat him as her slave. After a day of auditioning actresses, none of whom offers the kind of femininity and refinement he wants, Thomas is faced with a ditzy young woman (Erica Sullivan) whose name also happens to be Vanda. Figuring he has nothing to lose, he lets her audition, reading opposite himand, without giving away too much, the situation rapidly changes.
Director David Muse has found two skilled actors to navigate the increasingly convoluted relationship between Thomas and Vanda. Sullivan starts out hilariously scattered, tossing off lines like "You don't have to tell me about sadomasochism. I'm in the theater" and pulling unlikely props and costume pieces out of a surprisingly large tote bag. But she's scarily convincing as she gets into character, assuming the perfect cultured accent and self-possession, and soon she's making script suggestions and improvising new scenes with the playwright. At the same time, Conn ably brings to life a man who knows exactly what he wants and does not wantat least until Vanda starts manipulating him.
The play runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Muse has staged it in the smallest of Studio's three theaters, the Milton, which adds an extra bit of intimacy with the audience.
Interestingly enough, Venus in Fur is not the only examination of ambiguous relationships and difficult male-female dynamics currently on the Washington stage. Harold Pinter's Old Times, now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theater, is similarly enigmatic if less explicitly erotic.