“Venus in Fur” could be best described as cheeky rather than kinky, more of a talky intellectual exercise than a zesty exploration of the allure of sexual domination and submission.
Venus in Fur, by David Ives. Directed by Daniel Goldstein. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the BU Theatre, Boston, MA, through February 2.
By Bill Marx
Playwright David Ives’ stage adaptation of Venus in Furs, the late 19th century Teutonic ur-text of sadomaschoism, benefited from fortuitous timing — S & M was going mainstream. The show premiered in 2010 on off-Broadway and moved to Broadway in 2011, probably because of the commercial madness generated by the best-seller 50 Shades of Grey. (The movie version of E.L. James’ book is coming soon. If the box office returns are big enough a boffo musical will no doubt follow.) When making kink respectable for puritanical theater audiences the approach seems to be to highlight pain and punishment and marginalize sexual pleasure (and/or un-punished perversity). In 1980 the American Repertory Theater learned this lesson the hard way, when Lee Breuer’s amazing version of Frank Wedekind’s Lulu, awash in blood and libido, lust and death, occasioned howls of audience protest. The theater company never ventured into the dark corners of the sensual with as much courage or ferocity again — auteurism was limited to the conceptual rather than the carnal. When it came to provocation, voyeurism was off the table.
A more recent example of dramatizing the nexus of pleasure and pain was the South African version of Mies Julie, presented by Arts Emerson late last year. In this nervy revision of the August Strindberg classic, sweaty nude bodies mingled and cavorted; Julie and Jean were depicted as a pair of muscular animals scratching and clawing each other into deadly ecstasy. Little of that visceral fury can be found in Ives’ Venus in Fur, which could be best described as genially cheeky rather than kinky, more of a talky intellectual exercise than a zesty exploration of sexual domination/submission. As Ives writes in the Huntington Theatre Company program notes, he originally penned a straightforward version of the heavy-handed source text for the stage, but he was told by a trusted advisor that nobody today would take the whips and chains seriously. Ives solved the problem by whipping up a framing device that tosses in oodles of irony, satire, and exegesis. A patronizing dramatist, Tom, is helping to cast a production of his new adaptation of Venus in Furs for the theater. An actress, Vanda, arrives late to the audition; Tom is the only one left. She convinces him to let her read and, captivated by her desperation, talent, and flirtatiousness, they proceed to perform the play.
But, cue ominous sounds of thunder, Vanda may not be all she seems. It is not only the hokey storm noises that hint something is up, but the character morphs from moment to moment — she is alternately air-headed and smart, obedient and feisty, sexy and standoffish, knowing and clueless, commanding and cuddly, blackmailing and benign. For some unfathomable reason, the multiple faces of Eve-as-consumate-actress doesn’t tip off the smitten Tom that anything is amiss; apparently he is bedazzled by her outfit of fishnet stockings and garters (she brought the costume along), serious acting chops, and brilliant insights into his play. She even inspires him to add a scene. Yet Vanda deliberately triggers Tom’s anger and angst, repeatedly questioning his distanced approach to the material. Thus there are a number of CliffsNotes inspired arguments that revolve around the meaning of S & M in a feminist age and the autobiographical impulse in art. (Interesting that, aside from a reference to Beyoncé, sexual kink in contemporary entertainment is never discussed.) Tom should have taken note of the allusions to Euripides’s Bacchae that are awkwardly shoehorned into the conversation. Yes, there some highs in that tragedy, but men pay dearly for the hubris that brings them their jollies. Nudge, nudge…
And that is generally what happens when S & M goes mainstream — it becomes an exercise in namby-pamby naughtiness that wallows in cloying suggestion and two-ton punishment. There is not much of an opportunity for pleasurable fleshy confrontation in Venus in Fur given that playwright and actress are more interested in gabbing than caressing. Vanda makes fun of what is going on, which cools down the temperature, and Tom comes off as a lunk-head of a seducer. (Did he learn nothing from Venus in Furs? Is that part of the joke?) Each character ‘enslaves’ the other at some point during the evening but neither asks that any clothes be removed (as in most sex dramas on stage, women are the ones who are scantly clad — men don’t even take off their shirts.) To me, Ives’ cartoon ending is unsatisfying — a deus ex-machina should not be made of tin — though perhaps he is telling us that there is nothing really at stake in this unequal power struggle between the sexes. But then what is the point?
The HTC’s production of Venus in Fur provides some light amusement but no real jolts. It comes off as a mild update, sans the slamming doors, of the old-fashioned bedroom farce. Part of the problem is that the action calls, ideally, for a smaller, more intimate staging. About a third of the BU Theatre’s set (a rehearsal room) is taken up by empty audience seats — the performers find it difficult to generate sexual heat in the cavernous space. Director Daniel Goldstein has Chris Kipiniak (Tom) and Andrea Syglowski (Vanda) shoot high school goo-goo eyes at one another from time to time, but that isn’t enough to create the magnetism necessary to make the proceedings amount to more than a saucy debate. Syglowski is an attractive actress who moves with lithe agility, but she can’t make all her character’s numerous sharp turns. She does well with the figure’s comic timing, her quick putdowns and the put on ‘dumb blonde’ act, but she doesn’t exude enough of the concentrated allure or precocious wiliness that Vanda needs to slowly but dazzlingly dominate Tom. Not that Kipiniak’s earnest-to-a-fault playwright poses much of a challenge — he’s not a particularly interesting dunderhead. But then maybe that is the point — like Tom’s conventional sex with his fiancé, this is S & M served up mild and sanitized for respectable consumption, perversity made polite.