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‘Venus in Fur’ explores dynamics between sexes

“Venus in Fur” borrows from a classic literary trope, the frame narrative — presenting a play about a play — to relate the tale of director Thomas Novachek’s struggle to find an actress to perform the leading role in his sadomasochistic play until he meets Vanda Jordan, a brash but enthusiastic aspiring actress. “Venus in Fur,” written by David Ives and directed by Julia Hammer ’15, develops a darker perspective as it examines the relationship between Thomas and Vanda.

Thomas adapts his play from the real-life novel “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name the word “masochism” is derived. In both Sacher-Masoch’s novel and Thomas’ play, Severin “Gregor” von Kusiemski falls into a submissive love with Wanda von Dunayev, who he hopes will dominate him. The play-within-a-play format of “Venus in Fur” presents a tricky challenge for Hammer to execute properly without confusing the audience, but thankfully the cast of the play makes it abundantly clear when the actors are in character and when they are not.

Evelyn Giovine ’16 does an excellent job distinguishing between Vanda as a character and Vanda’s interpretation of Wanda, the lead of Thomas’ play. As Vanda, Giovine portrays a frenetic and emotional gum-chewing actress who seems airheaded at first. With her high-pitched intonation, she points out innuendo in the most mundane objects around the audition room, such as a pipe and a cup of coffee. However, Giovine depicts Vanda as Wanda in an entirely different manner. Wanda, a wealthy woman, is accustomed to a life of leisure in high society. She speaks and holds herself accordingly, attaining an air of dignity and refinement uncharacteristic of Vanda the actress. Giovine stands up straighter and adopts a more disdainful tone as Wanda, attributes which help the audience understand through contrast when Vanda behaves as herself and when she plays Wanda. These changes in voice and posture occur at a moment’s notice, emphasizing the rapid and frequent transitions into and out of the play. Unfortunately, when Wanda reads German words, she routinely mispronounces the word for yes by overemphasizing a fake German accent. This became rather distracting, especially when the characters themselves are supposedly native German speakers.

In contrast to the brash and easily excitable Vanda, Thomas, played by Dan Ames GS, is a serious and more taciturn character. Initially unimpressed with Vanda’s tardiness and lackluster resume, he reluctantly lets her audition for the part of Wanda. However, as they read the script as part of the audition process and act out scenes of the play together, his opinion changes. Ames portrays Thomas’ transformation as gradual. Unlike Vanda, who transforms between herself and Wanda without batting an eye, Thomas takes a much more deliberate position. Ironically, despite reading the role of a submissive character, Thomas as the play’s director tries to assert his control over Vanda. Ames’ performance as Thomas emphasizes the character’s commitment to order and authority, but he also delicately demonstrates how Thomas’ character changes through interactions with Vanda — one such moment comes as he concedes to her small bits of artistic license.

The play is set in a small room, furnished with only a few folding tables and chairs as well as a sofa. Its sparse furnishings indicate Thomas’ status as an up-and-coming director rather than one with an established name, while also contributing to the play’s metropolitan atmosphere. The play takes place during a harsh downpour; periodic flashes of lightning accompanied by rumbling thunder remind the audience of the raging storm. The rolling thunder crescendoes at the play’s climax, creating a dramatic auditory cue that emphasizes the dangerous emotions lurking within Thomas and Vanda, and keeps the implications of the play’s ending ambiguous.

The cast and crew of “Venus in Fur” have produced an excellent show about Thomas and Vanda, two artists whose relationship grows increasingly complicated as they delve further into the power-based roles they undertake. A deeply emotional play about complex interactions between dominating and submissive characters, “Venus in Fur” should not be missed.

4.5 out of 5 paws

Pros: Strong performances by Giovine and Ames.

Cons: Distractingly exaggerated accents.

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