January 26, 2014

Sexual Politics: The Play Within the Play — Venus in Fur at Kitchen Theatre

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Laughter, lightning and gasps filled the Kitchen Theatre on Saturday night at the opening of David Ives’ one-act play, Venus in Fur. A complex and shifting exploration of power dynamics in art, sex and gender, Venus in Fur offers up numerous questions but refuses to suggest any answers. Rather, it invites the audience into dizzying and thrilling confusion. In her curtain speech, director Rachel Lampert reminded the audience that “important conversations happen in the kitchen.” The excited and impassioned buzz that filled the theatre after the actors took their final bow certainly proved her right. Lampert’s direction is brave and self-reflective, for while the play examines and critiques power dynamics in all aspects of life, the role of the director certainly finds itself under special scrutiny. Sexually-charged and hilarious performances by both Maddie Jo Lander and Brandon Morris make these terribly enjoyable ninety minutes fly by all too quickly.

The lights go up on the character of Thomas Novachek, a playwright and director, who has just finished an unsuccessful day of auditioning actresses for the female part in his new adaptation of Leopold von Sach-Masoch’s 1870 erotic novel Venus in Fur. Just as he opens the door to leave, in stumbles Vanda — beautiful, late, flustered and cursing. Oddly, she shares the same peculiar name as the female part in his play.

Thomas’ play within a play tells the story of Severin, an aristocrat, tortured by an erotic memory of being whipped by his beautiful aunt while lying on her sable coat.  He has spent his life searching for a woman to humiliate, dominate and torture him, and when he meets a beautiful and free-spirited woman named Vanda at a health spa, he begs her to play the role of his mistress. She protests, claiming that by ceding his control, he is taking power nonetheless.

The modern Vanda hardly appears to be the serious actress that Thomas spent the day searching for. Her speech, inflected with “likes” and “you knows,” perfectly embodies the type of actress that Thomas bemoaned in a monologue prior to her entrance. Thomas claims that it is impossible to find an “actress who can actually pronounce the word degradation without a tutor.”  Despite his obvious disinterest, she forces him to watch her audition, and even more impressively gets him to read opposite her.

When Vanda, the actress, enters the audition room, she throws off her coat to reveal fishnet stockings and a dog collar around her neck — a modern day S&M costume.  She teases Thomas that her collar is a leftover from her days as a prostitute. It comes as a surprise to both Thomas and the audience when she pulls a white Victorian dress from her bag and begins to read the role of Vanda in a perfectly European accent. In fact, she does not even need to read the script. She knows it by heart, although she claims merely to have flipped through it on the train. Vanda’s transformation in the play impressively exhibits Ms. Lander’s own talent, for in this play she successfully portrays a character so complex that multiple voices, personalities and demeanors are called for. Vanda’s audition is inspiring and consistent. Only occasionally does she break from, in her own words, her “phony continental accent,” to interject an “Oh my God, I love this!”

As the play progresses, Vanda’s validity as an airhead is increasingly called into question — she quotes interviews with Thomas, knows details of his private life and makes specific references to ancient plays. As she starts to expose more intellectual, sexual and artistic power, Vanda also begins to outwardly question the sexist undertones of Thomas’ work. The beginning of this shift in power, paired with the palpable sexual tension between them, holds the audience in gripping suspense.  Brandon Morris’ performance also deepens as his character becomes increasingly vulnerable and unstable.

Power and reality hold constantly shifting roles in this play, yet its researched and witty dialogue never becomes confusing. It is rich with references and yet amusing, even to one who does not catch all of them. For instance, Vanda’s legitimacy is called to question when she claims she got her costumes at Screaming Mimi’s, an expensive Manhattan vintage store, for $3. She raises questions about her honesty enough times that those unfamiliar with the store, and thus this impossibility, lose nothing. Similarly, Lampert chose to stage the play to the song “Venus” by Television. This ’70s punk band has fallen somewhat into obscurity, yet their song’s narrative occurs in New York City and its lyrics about desire, pain and costumes clearly resonate with the play.

Venus in Fur is a play for those who want to think and be challenged. The show is perfect for those who want to laugh and be shocked, and who doesn’t fall into one of those categories most of the time? It is definitely not something to miss.

Venus in Fur runs Wednesday through Sunday at Kitchen Theatre until February 9.