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Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ At Circle Theatre

venus2Learning to take direction: Chris Hury and Allison Pistorius in Venus in Fur at Circle Theatre. Photo by Leah Layman.

The name of the English translator of Venus in Furs seems too perfect to be true. And perhaps it isn’t, perhaps it’s a pseudonym. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, Venus in Furs inspired the term “masochism” with its now-iconic drama of erotic discipline. A trembling male narrator, Severin, begs a woman, a baroness, to grasp her true, imperious self by humiliating him in various ways. She eventually does — she even has him plow a field — and it certainly helps that, while doing so, she dons furs, spike heels and whatnot, all the required fetish equipment.

The woman who first translated all this into English — the translation that playwright David Ives used for his witty comedy of sexual revenge onstage at Circle Theatre –  was named “Fernanda Savage.”

Savage’s translation appeared in 1921 with her literate introduction quoting Dostoevsky and Zola. And then she disappeared without a trace. There’s nothing else published under that name. So, while we can’t say for certain whether Ms. Savage herself was a whip-wielding dominatrix, she would seem to have had many of the qualities in a woman that Sacher-Masoch dreamed of. She managed to publish a translation of what was then considered, at best, illegal, high-class smut. To do so, Savage must have been intelligent, daring, open-minded, capable — and, it seems, more than a little elusive.

Intelligent, daring, capable and more than a little elusive is a fair description of North Texas actress Allison Pistorius  — though not of the character she portrays, Vanda in Circle Theatre’s Venus in Fur. Vanda bursts in, rain-wet and too late, for a theater audition. Thomas (Chris Hury), the director and author of the play, has just spent a frustrating day auditioning dozens of young similar actresses for his stage adaptation of Venus in Furs. A tyrant and more than a little sexist, Thomas dismisses them all as idiots. They’re incapable of embodying the truly “feminine” he has imagined.

At first, Vanda is even more exasperating. She’s a ditsy motormouth. She curses the rainstorm and flippantly trashes Thomas’ beloved inspiration. The original novella and his script? Just S&M porn. “I know my sadomasochism,” she shrugs. “I work in the theater.”

Still, even as she seems to be sabotaging her chances, Vanda manages to charm/cajole Thomas into letting her read for the part of the baroness. And once she assumes the role, Vanda instantly becomes a cultivated young Austrian woman, her movements and carriage precise, her expressions bemused but cutting.

venus1It’s a delectable transformation — which Pistorius pulls off with aplomb. And as Vanda keeps switching between contemporary vulgarian and cool-headed noblewoman, she unsettles, indeed “unmans” Thomas. He’s the boss, yet she’s the one toying with him. Obviously, Ives finds Sacher-Masoch’s gender dynamics a stage audition. Vanda displays theatrical as well as sexual magic — embodying different characters, putting on authority with a new voice, a new gesture, a new dog collar.

This means Venus becomes a play-within-a-play, a play about role-playing, which is typically what S&M involves. Not surprisingly, the actress is much better at this subversive game than the director, even with his reputation for bedding (and berating) actresses.

All of this may sound highly academic and meta — much like my opening paragraphs — but Ives — still best known for All in the Timing, his clever evening of comic one-acts — knows how to keep an audience amused and intrigued. Venus in Fur is basically Strindberg with jokes. Think of his boundary-breaking dramas, Miss Julie or The Dance of Death or Creditors. In different ways, they’re all battles between an empowered, independent woman and a defensive, vengeful male. And that’s Fur, albeit with fewer poisonings and more laugh lines.

In both Strindberg’s and Sacher-Masoch’s writings, we get the same ice queen (hated or adored), the same 19th-century contempt for women, whether the women are hated or adored. And men — they’re all alike as well. “Woman, as nature has created her, and man at present is educating her, is man’s enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion.” It’s hard to choose which author wrote those lines because of what the authors share, a reductive view of the sexes that was, at the time, revolutionary. It seemed bold because it’s so binary; there’s no middle-ground, no human exchange of affections, needs or vulnerabilities. There’s only power or weakness, seduction or force. Of course, that kind of imbalance and tension — as the New York Times pointed out this weekend — is much hotter and sexier to many of us than equal pay, mutual respect, shared chores, all the kind of enlightened, dutiful, feminist-inspired advances Thomas, no doubt, finds so boring with his fiancee.

But bringing up Strindberg shows just how Ives’ Venus is not all that daring for all the attention it’s received. The only explicit thing here is the language. Ives’ comedy didn’t become one of the most popular plays in American theaters last year by being truly transgressive or naked or violent. It’s entertaining because it plays at turning the tables; it doesn’t knock them over.

It’s a game, a tease, specifically about who is Vanda — really? I won’t spoil it by revealing Ives’ big ‘reveal,’ but I will say I found it unconvincing. It’s a let-down because it takes this confrontation out of the realm of the distinctly human. Also, Ives’ frequent equation of feminism with bondage & discipline — only the dominatrix is the truly unfettered New Woman — is a common enough misreading because it’s  so sexy, so dangerous, but also so diminishing. It buys into Sacher-Masoch’s binary thinking. This play really isn’t about equality, it’s about which gender gets to be in charge.

Little of this should seriously impair one’s enjoyment of Circle’s Venus. Last year, Hury and Pistorius won Dallas/Fort Worth Critics Forum Awards for their pair-up in Stage West’s Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t see it because, frankly, there have been too many Shrews getting easy laughs with a bullying Petrucchio and a shrill Kate. I wasn’t going to risk enduring another. But Hury and Pistorius make me wish I had.

Directed by Krista Scott, they have the kind of easy give-and-take-but-get-outta-my-face that can come with  practice and skill. Hury, as noted before this, has become our local go-to guy for playing heartless alpha males. But if Fur is all about the director’s comeuppance, his fearful fall into his real passions and doubts, then Hury needs to be chillier, more hateful, at the start. Hury has the weary bitterness and misogyny; he just needs the shrugging lack of empathy. That way, when Vanda awakens him to his own feelings, when she seems to offer him the kind of extreme passion he’s secretly sought, we realize a) this can’t end in just a happy bedroom tryst and some friendly flagellation, and b) he’s really losing something if he loses her.

Now that’s revenge, getting to hurt him on the inside.

As for Pistorius, she, too, is weakest at the start. It’s difficult for a smart performer to convincingly portray a dim bulb (and, for that matter, vice versa). There’s a glittering, mocking intelligence in Pistorius’ eyes and smile, and from the get-go, audiences may well suspect her Vanda is up to something. But you also can see the thrill Pistorius brings to Vanda when she has the whip hand.

And that goes a long way to conveying the fun of Fur.

Ives’ play doesn’t cut very deep. It’s really not — in honor of Sacher-Masoch’s English translator — all that savage. But it does tantalize and amuse.