Commentary

Reviews (6)
‘Venus in Fur’ flips the script on sexual power dynamics

Marty Hughley | The Oregonian [19 Feb 2013]

“We’re looking for somebody a little different,” says Thomas, a writer/director, anxious to end an audition by an actress who seems to exemplify the undesirable qualities he’s been seeing all day. But he finds out soon enough just how different this late-arriving actress, Vanda, really is, as reading and role playing turn into a tense, erotically charged game.
   
A Tony nominee from its 2011 Broadway run, David Ives’ “Venus in Fur” plumbs sexual and psychological (and, for that matter, theatrical) power dynamics with devilish wit and intelligence.

But however sharp the writing, the play depends heavily on its two actors, in particular the woman playing Vanda. In the wickedly entertaining production that opened Friday at Portland Center Stage, directed by Nancy Keystone, willowy blonde Ginny Myers Lee’s Vanda is mercury in a leather mini. Continually shifting personas, accents, moods, expressions and apparent (and not-so-apparent) intentions, she’s a marvel of plasticity—off-putting, intriguing and alluring, first by turns, then somehow all at once. It’s one of the theater season’s most remarkable performances.
     

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“We’re looking for somebody a little different,” says Thomas, a writer/director, anxious to end an audition by an actress who seems to exemplify the undesirable qualities he’s been seeing all day. But he finds out soon enough just how different this late-arriving actress, Vanda, really is, as reading and role playing turn into a tense, erotically charged game.
   
A Tony nominee from its 2011 Broadway run, David Ives’ “Venus in Fur” plumbs sexual and psychological (and, for that matter, theatrical) power dynamics with devilish wit and intelligence.

But however sharp the writing, the play depends heavily on its two actors, in particular the woman playing Vanda. In the wickedly entertaining production that opened Friday at Portland Center Stage, directed by Nancy Keystone, willowy blonde Ginny Myers Lee’s Vanda is mercury in a leather mini. Continually shifting personas, accents, moods, expressions and apparent (and not-so-apparent) intentions, she’s a marvel of plasticity—off-putting, intriguing and alluring, first by turns, then somehow all at once. It’s one of the theater season’s most remarkable performances.
   
David Barlow’s turn as Thomas isn’t so showy, but it conveys the crucial, slowly twisting contours of a complex character arc with admirable subtlety.
   
Thomas is at the end—or so he thinks—of a long, fruitless day trying to cast an actress for his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 19th-century erotic novel “Venus in Furs.” He’s looking for a certain combination of femininity and brains, as well as some evident respect for the source material he considers a classic of world literature. Instead, as he complains in a phone call to his fiance, he’s seen “35 incompetent actresses” with squeaky voices and airheaded notions about the character.
   
Then Vanda comes storming in—almost literally, with a crackle of thunder attending her entrance to the drab, spare rehearsal studio. She’s hours late for an appointment she didn’t really have, but she pushes and pouts and charms and guilts him into letting her read for the role.

She’s perfect for the part, she insists: “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism,” she says. ”I’m in the theater!” And she’s just as adamant, in her alternately bubbly and passive-aggressive way, that Thomas has more than a professional investment in Sacher-Masoch’s story: “You’re a playwright, a director—it’s your job to torture actors.”

But there’s more that’s puzzling about Vanda than just her rollercoaster affect. How did she get a full script instead of just the select pages Thomas provided for the auditions? How has she committed it very nearly to memory from what she claims was a subway perusal? How does she know so much about Thomas and his fiance? Is she a clever and desperate actress, some sort of undercover operative, or could she really be—as those periodic thunderclaps might hint—a goddess of love?
   
Soon it’s less and less clear who is directing and who acting, who is choosing and who supplicating.
   
Yet, for all the sexual tension, all the expressed and implied social critique, all the overlays of literary and theater politics, “Venus in Fur” is terrifically funny. It’s sharp yet good-natured humor keeps the more obvious titillation from feeling cheap and lends a lightness that balances the play’s darker mysteries.

It’s just the sort of play, perhaps, if you’re looking for something a little different.

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Venus in Fur

Gigi Little | Ut Omnia Bene Blog [19 Feb 2013]

When I told Stephen I was getting tickets to the Portland Center Stage production of Venus in Fur, he said, “I hope it’s not so sexy it embarrasses me.”

I hadn’t thought about that. I’d just heard that Venus in Fur is a play about a playwright / director who’s auditioning actresses for his own play Venus in Fur, based on the nineteenth century novel Venus in Furs (notice the s) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. That sounded innocent enough. Then, working, as I do, at Powell’s, I decided to make a see-the-play-read-the-book shelf tag to post along with copies of the novel in the stores, and I looked up which section the book is kept in.

Erotica.

So: yipe. Sexy embarrasses me when I’m all by myself - I hated to think about what it would do to my wussy self in public.

Come Saturday night, Stephen and I were two prudes off for a night of saucy theater - but the play about the play about the novel that gave masochism its name turned out to be a smart, funny and fascinating study on the subject of power.

Yes, it was also sexy.

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The play starts with a crash of thunder and a flickering of the lights in the theater. It’s the end of an unsatisfying day of auditioning actresses for his production of Venus in Fur, and director Thomas (David Barlow), alone in his studio, is set upon by the very-late-for-her-appointment actress Vanda. Wet from the downpour, she makes her entrance shouting f-bombs and shaking her fist at the sky, “Thank you, God, once again!” Though Thomas is dead set on not taking one more audition, Vanda begs and banters and charms - and powers her way into reading for him, and Venus in Fur becomes a play within a play, exploring not only the master/slave sadomasochistic relationship in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel but power play in general.

Vanda is hells bells theatrical, a daffy motormouth, a character who, if played just a titch differently, could easily be annoying. But Ginny Myers Lee is spot-on funny, and her performance, as it moves through the plot, gets more and more complex and subtle as our perceptions about who she is and what she’s doing there change. Both Ginny Myers Lee and David Barlow are really strong actors, and the writing is smart and funny and full of tension.

Pretty much nonstop tension. Which the periodic bursts of thunder and flickering of lights from the storm outside complement nicely, reminding us not only of the physical tension in the air but the power play between gods that seems to arc over the entire play. As Vanda and Thomas banter and struggle and flirt and fight through their own power play and the characters in Thomas’ adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel move through their own power play, the gods themselves - evoked in Thomas’ script and in Thomas and Vanda’s dialogue - thunder overhead.

I have to say, if I could see this one again, I would. It was that fascinating. Every turn of the two characters was another way to think about power, to examine and reexamine a subject that’s far more complex than you’d think. Beyond the drama and humor and downright entertainment of this play, what I loved most was how it took that theme of power and put a magnifying glass to it - and then a kaleidoscope - and reminded us how every interaction we have is some sort of power play.

The question of power is in more than just the slave-master dance performed by Thomas and Vanda as their reading of Venus in Fur spills out beyond the audition. It’s in, for instance, the way Thomas answers his cell phone when his fiancée calls. It’s in the simple fact that in her high spike heels, Vanda is taller than Thomas. It’s in the tiny feeling of naked in the middle of my chest as I watch Vanda and Thomas disrobe, Vanda into her black leather bra and mini skirt, Thomas simply taking his shirt off. I question myself throughout the performance. What does it mean that that wussy self I mentioned before is more embarrassed when it’s the man who’s disrobing? What does it mean that I feel embarrassed for the man, in particular, when he’s playing the submissive role (a reaction I’m ashamed to admit)? As watcher of the play, how passive do I feel as the one being served the story? How powerful do I feel as the one smart enough to think all the smart thoughts I’ve been thinking about power while I watch the play, safe in my seat?

As you can see from this post: pretty damn powerful.

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Venus in Fur Review

Trey Reis | BePortland.com [19 Feb 2013]

Portland Center Stage’s production of Venus in Fur begins with a flustered, bumbling actress, hours late for her audition, talking circles around the playwrite who just wants to get home to his fiancee. That is, until Vanda Jordan, played by Ginny Myers Lee, convinces him to let her audition. The playwrite, Thomas (David Barlow) begrudgingly picks up a script. From there, the lines in front of him begin to transform and converge as the characters strip and redress their way through the script.

In her notes on the play, director Nancy Keystone outlines the appeal it has to her in exploring “the secrets that drive one to pursue difficult, painful or dangerous relationships.” These secrets, introduced in the inspiration for the play, the 1870 German novel, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, led to the coining of the term “masochist.” The transferral of this century-old term from a German novelist to a modern day playwrite seems like a wild move on the part of the play’s author, David Ives. However, with each line of the play, the concept begins to feel more and more appropriate in highlighting the lasting, pain-seeking tendencies still alarmingly present in modern relationships.

It’s the Portland Center Stage premiere for the play’s two actors and their roles could not be larger. Throughout the audition, the two actors take on a number of different faces. These range from a rambling blonde, to a masochistic servant, to godlike entities, as the dividing line between reality and the script in front of them begins to fade away. And it all occurs within the confines of a flourescent-lit office cleared out to hold the actor tryouts. What Thomas thought was a hopeless audition, has turned into a sexual, eye-opening volley of direction and submission. This scraping away of the layers leads the play to a climax of divine proportions wherein the audience finally sees mankind fulfilling its role of being a reflection of the gods.

Tony Awards 2012 Best Nominee, Venus in Fur premiered at Portland Center Stage on January 29th and will continue through March 10th, with tickets for the remaining shows going fast.

Review: Venus in Fur

Jonathan Frochtzwajg | Portland Monthly [12 Feb 2013]

In the first scene of Venus in Fur, Portland Center Stage’s new production, Thomas (David Barlow), the director/playwright of a theatrical adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s scandalizing 1870 novella Venus in Furs (Masoch, masochism—get it?), paces around a dingy New York room at the end of a long day of unsatisfying auditions, complaining to his fiancée over the phone about the lack of qualified applicants. The scene, while establishing that Thomas is pedantic (his diatribe leaves no room for reply) and has issues with women (the female auditioners’ sexuality seems to have offended him personally), is much too long. 

That’s the only bad thing to be said about Venus in Fur.

This taut, psychological play, which was nominated for a Tony last year, gets good—and then only gets better—with the entrance of Vanda (Ginny Myers Lee), an actor who seems, on first impression, just like the ones Thomas has been complaining about: attractive and entitled. She is, to boot, a hot mess, soaking wet with rain, prattling on with excuses and a trace of Valspeak, and generally making a fool of herself. But once Vanda has somehow convinced Thomas to let her try out, she astonishes not only him, but us, by utterly transforming into her haughtily erotic character. As the audition goes on—much longer than Thomas has told his fiancée it would—and the distance between director and actor, self and role, submission and domination, and, finally, reality and fantasy begins to close, we come to understand that Vanda isn’t (or at least isn’t only) the ditz she first appeared as; indeed, she isn’t a proper character at all, but a representation of ideas that fascinatingly, maddeningly, ceaselessly changes faces. Is she an airheaded bimbo? A manipulative schemer? Or something more abstract: sexuality draped in animality, risen from the depths of our subconscious upon a seashell?

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In any case, the role requires quite an actor. Lee fits the bill, playing each of the many Vandas (we count at least four) in a distinct and tuneful key (and getting plenty of laughs with her exaggerated, comedic performance at the play’s start). Meanwhile, Barlow, as Thomas, ably holds up his end of the two-man show, and director Nancy Keystone does a fine job of bringing New York playwright David Ives’s script to the stage, particularly in her well-considered blocking.

Venus in Fur runs at the Gerding Theater at the Armory through Mar 10. Ultimately, however, it is the richness of PCS’s source material that makes Venus great. As Ives uses Vonda to toy with Thomas, so he uses all the devices in his writers’ toolbox to toy with the audience, cleverly forcing us to reexamine our notions of power, gender, and sex. These examinations aren’t ones that produce answers immediately. Like a thorny internal conflict, Venus leaves viewers puzzling over the questions it asks, passing them back and forth among id, ego, and superego long after final bows. What more can you ask of a work of art?

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‘Venus in Fur’ Plays with Power and Seduction at Portland Center Stage

Leela Ginelle | PQ Monthly [12 Feb 2013]

The roles of submission and dominance, of mistress (or master) and slave, are played out consensually in bedrooms and dungeons around the world each day. For an hour or two at a time people slough off life’s conventions and enter into erotic agreements made safe by their limits, time and otherwise.

In the world of porn and fantasy such scenarios become boundless, however, depicting the complete subjugation of one person to another, perhaps for eternity. The stories follow a sort of “porn logic,” which does not resemble literary, or even soap opera logic, because of its cruelty, and highly specialized area of arousal.

The idea that such a story could rise to the level of art is tested in David Ives play “Venus in Fur,” which shows now at Portland Center Stage’s Ellen Bye Theater.

Ives’ highly self-reflexive drama depicts a playwright, Thomas, adapting Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel of the same name. The novel, popularized for hipsters by the Velvet Underground, tells the story of a tormented 19th century gentleman, Severin, who convinces an aristocratic woman, Vonda von Dunajew, to enslave him.

Ives embeds this foundational S&M story into his play through a reading of Thomas’s script at a highly charged, last-minute audition featuring Thomas himself, and an actress named Vonda Jackson.

In Thomas and Vonda we see all of the dynamics and paradoxes of sado-masochism played out. Thomas reads the role of the masochist Severin, but, as the author and director, holds the power in the relationship. When enacting von Dunajew, however, Vonda herself becomes Thomas’s ideal and enthralls him.

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Is all of this healthy? Well, Ives’ play explores that question, too, having Vonda break off from the reading periodically to throw out questions and comments like a freshman seminar student. “So this is all about child abuse, huh?” “This is so sexist,” and so on.

The device is clever, but it paints the story into a corner that it escapes by somewhat dubious means.

The play’s drama comes from the evolving relationship of Thomas and Vonda. Through the course of the audition, their power dynamic shifts, as she becomes more and more cruel and commanding, seemingly to his delight.

For much of the play this keeps the audience on its toes, wondering what is genuine and what’s gamesmanship on Vonda’s part. How you feel about the answer to that question, revealed at the play’s end, will color your opinion of its merit. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I will say the performance I attended garnered a standing ovation from half the crowd.

The show’s actors, Ginny Myers Lee and David Barlow, essentially play two parts each. As Vonda and Thomas, they enact slightly off-putting modern archetypes – feminine vapidity and male chauvinism. As von Dunajew and Severin, they become a modern ideal of refined 19th century repression.

The latter certainly comes closer to Thomas’s claim that “Venus in Fur” is not smut or porn, as Vonda keeps declaring, but is, instead, a portrait of outsized human passion rarely depicted in our staid world.

Lee probably has the choicer part, as her transformations, which occur on a dime, are the more striking. Watching her perform them in the Ellen Bye Theater’s close quarters feels special. Barlow depicts Thomas’s rage and depression, uncomfortable as they are, quite nakedly.

Like one of those bedroom or dungeon sessions mentioned above, the show unfolds as an uninterrupted encounter over nearly two hours, the twists and turns compounding one another, and the emotional stickiness ensuing. By the end, a hothouse feel accrues, as the characters make bad and worse choices – bad or worse, that is, if one judges by conventional standards.

This being a story celebrating the work of von Sacher-Masoch, however, the man who put the Masoch in masochism, we should probably cut them some slack.

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Venus in Fur

Rebecca Jacobson | Willamette Week [08 Feb 2013]

Fifty Shades of Grey reduced sadomasochism to handcuffs and spanking. Venus in Fur—while not devoid of dog collars and riding crops—throws into question such simple ideas of control and compliance. In David Ives’ work, in a jagged but entertaining production directed by Nancy Keystone, the relationship between domination and submission is an erotic power play that revels in its ambiguous stakes.

Thomas (David Barlow) is a playwright-director who has adapted Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella about a man who dreams of being enslaved by a woman, and as Venus in Fur begins he’s just endured a disastrous string of auditions. But as he calls his fiancee to snivel about those 35 inept actresses, into the dingy rehearsal room blows Vanda (Ginny Myers Lee), furiously shaking her umbrella and swearing about the perverts on the subway. Vanda may share a name with Sacher-Masoch’s female character, and she may have come dressed in spike heels and leather bustier (which she’ll later unzip with a very funny “Geronimo!”), but on first glance she’s not so different from the 35 previous ninnies.

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That quickly changes as Vanda cajoles Thomas into letting her audition for the part. Lee, with impressive control, transitions between more than two roles: In addition to modern-day Vanda, a ditzy motor mouth who describes Sacher-Masoch’s book as “porn-ish,” and 19th-century Vanda, a haughty aristocrat with a vaguely Continental accent, there’s another Vanda who cites Greek mythology and dips into startling psychosexual insights. Lee flings herself into these rapidly shifting guises, and she’s hilarious to boot—in the show’s comedic highlight, Vanda improvises a scene as a German-accented Venus, slinkily lounging on the divan as she pronounces “cuddle” as “coodle” and whispers “I’ll be back” as if she’s Schwarzenegger. Her motives—was this audition a premeditated stunt or did it develop more organically?—remain mysterious.

Opposite this swirling tempest, Barlow falters. As his character is alternately flattered and berated, Barlow’s default response is to widen his eyes and gape at Vanda like a startled puppy. Rather than fully engaging in her game, he relinquishes control almost immediately, rendering his later bursts of misogyny (“You fucking idiot woman!”) a bit incongruous. Best, perhaps, to turn attention to Ives’ sizzling script, a fiercer whip than E.L. James could ever hope to crack.

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