Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Venus in Fur
Great River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arthur's reviews of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare in Love and All's Well That Ends Well

Anna Sundberg and
Doug Scholz-Carlson

Photo by Dan Norman
The three Mainstage offerings at this year's Great River Shakespeare Festival leave audiences in good cheer: a buoyant production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the fizzy romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love, and All's Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," but—as the title foretells—with a conclusion leaves its characters in good stead. Across the lobby, in the Black Box Theater, GRSF offers a different experience with its production of Venus in Fur. The David Ives play that premiered Off-Broadway in 2010 provokes laughter, but only as a lubricant for its darker themes, as it examines sexual power between men and women. Leaving the theater after Venus in Fur, audience members were engaged in robust conversation about what they had seen—a good sign, to be sure—but without the broad smiles and recurrent laughter emitted by those exiting the mainstage shows.

Venus in Fur begins with a playwright named Thomas at the end of a long day auditioning for the lead female role in his new play, which he is also directing. He vents his frustration at the inadequacy of the actresses to his fiancée over the phone, complaining that none of these young women know how to be sexy and smart at the same time, and that "half are dressed like hookers, the other half like dykes." He prepares to leave the barren-looking audition room and face the storm outside when another prospect barges in, ignoring his protests that she is too late, that he is exhausted, that someone is waiting for him, and that the reader is gone. She chaotically spews out excuses for her late arrival, peppered with four letter words. She doesn't win Thomas' favor, either, by offhandedly describing his play as "S&M porn." When he flat out tells her "we're looking for somebody different," she resorts to seeking sympathy, whining "Somebody who's not me. I'm too young. Too old. I'm too big, I'm too small. My resume's not long enough. Okay."

The actress still has a few tricks up her sleeve. For one thing, her name is Vanda, the same name as the character in his play, so it seems like the part was made for her! Also she has a copy of the complete script. This alarms Thomas, as no one is supposed to have that. And, when she slips out of her street clothes, revealing a black leather corset, and puts on a vintage shop dress that perfectly suits the play's 1860s middle European setting, she begins to look like the Vanda that Thomas has been seeking. She cheerily tells him that he can be the reader for her audition, and he gives her a go—a few pages.

Thomas' play is also called Venus in Fur, an adaptation of the 1870 novella "Venus in Furs" by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. In both the novella and Thomas' play, a man named Severin and a woman named Vanda enter into a slave-master relationship, with Severin the slave who totally submits to and is humiliated by Vanda, the master—or in this case, mistress. The word "masochism" derives from Sacher-Masoch's surname, and as Thomas and Vanda read scenes from his play, the line between the fictional Severin and Vanda's sadomasochistic relationship and the flesh and blood Thomas and Vanda begins to disappear. As the night goes on, Vanda reveals that she knows more about Thomas' play, the book it is based on, and Thomas himself than one could expect of the scatterbrained gum-chewing actress who tumbled out of the rain begging for an audition.

The play, at only 100 minutes with no intermission, catches the audience by the throat the moment Vanda enters the room, and never lets go. That is a result of Ives' incisive writing, creating a character who withholds things about herself, leaving crumbs of information for Thomas and for the audience to follow to try to unravel her mystery. It is also due to Anna Sundberg's galvanizing performance as Vanda. In 2007 Sundberg was a member of Great River Shakespeare Festival's apprentice program. She went on to immense success on Twin Cities' stages, winning the 2011 Emerging Artist Ivey Award and playing the role of Vanda to rave reviews in Jungle Theater's 2013 mounting of Venus in Fur. Sundberg has relocated to New York, but happily is back in Winona this summer to recreate her performance as Vanda, along with major roles in two other Great River productions. As Vanda, Sundberg is a delicious blend of sexiness, intelligence, humor and controlled anger.

If Doug Scholz-Carlson's performance as Thomas does not match Sundberg's in terms of dramatic fireworks, it is largely a function of how Ives has written the part. We meet Thomas in a state of exhausted frustration and, soon after, he is bulldozed by Vanda, giving in to her, clearly against his will. In the charisma department, Thomas is far out-matched. Then, as Thomas reads lines with Vanda, Scholz-Carlson reveals the psyche of Severin buried within Thomas, and his character becomes more complex and far more interesting. Scholz-Carlson shows Thomas' response, both tremulous and aroused, as Vanda subjugates Severin to her scorn and cruelty. At the end we believe that Thomas has been profoundly jarred, left besieged by his own demons. Scholz-Carlson is a founding member of Great River Shakespeare Festival's acting company but, as their Artistic Director since 2013, has not appeared on stage for many years. This role offers a great opportunity to see his sturdy acting chops back in action.

Violet Smith's lighting design and Sidney McCarty's sound design complement the play superbly, providing the sound and tint of a storm outside the audition hall that matches the emotional storm within. Hayley Ryan's costumes perfectly provide the prop-apparel that transport modern-dress Vanda, the actress, and Thomas the playwright to 1860s central Europe. Director Jess Shoemaker has kept the play briskly paced, never allowing this two-hander to be talky or static.

In the midst of #metoo and continued revelations of sexual predation in many walks of life, the themes of Venus in Fur take on new currency. Who bears responsibility for imbalances in sexual power between two individuals? Is it really possible for one party to consent to being subjected to sexual violence—be it physical or emotional? Can a man truly obliterate the position of power conferred by a male-dominated society? These questions spring forth from David Ives' play and add lines of inquiry to the re-examination of gender roles and power. Great River Shakespeare Festival's Venus in Fur is both timely and engrossing, with a pair of powerful performances that are likely to stay fixed in memory.

Season 15 of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through August 5, 2018, at the Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona, MN. All's Well that Ends Well, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare in Love and Venus in Fur play in rotation, with schedules changing weekly. Tickets for Mainstage productions: $25.00 - $49.00; for the Black Box: $25.00. Discount season passes for all four plays are available. For schedule of performances and other Festival events, and for tickets call 507-474-7900 or go to

Writer: David Ives; Director: Jess Shoemaker; Scenic Design: Donald Quilinquin; Lighting Design: Violet Smith; Costume Design: Haley Ryan; Sound Design: Sidney McCarty; Props Supervisor: Connor M. McEvoy; Stage Manager: Kate Ocker; Assistant Director: Gaby Rodriguez; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelsey Bouma.

Cast: Doug Scholz-Carlson (Thomas), Anna Sundberg (Vanda)

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