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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, it’s likely 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 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, initially, of the character she portrays. Vanda bursts into Ives’ Venus in Fur, rain-wet and flustered, too late for a theater audition. Thomas (Chris Hury), the director of the play, has just spent a frustrating day auditioning dozens of young actresses for his stage adaptation of the Sacher-Masoch novella. 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. But 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 starts acting out the role, Vanda instantly becomes a cultivated young Austrian woman, her movements and carriage precise, her expression bemused but cutting.

It’s a delectable transformation — which Pistorius pulls off with aplomb. Switching back and forth, Vanda unsettles, indeed “unmans” Thomas. He’s the boss, yet she’s the one toying with him. As Vanda herself says, dismissing Sacher-Masoch’s novella with a shrug, “I know my sadomasochism. I work in the theater.”

Yes, she does. Her magic is theatrical as much as it is sexual, embodying different characters, putting on authority with a new voice, a new gesture, a new dog collar. All 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 game than the director.

All of this may make the play sound rather academic, 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 Miss Julie or The Dance of Death or Creditors. In different ways, these Strindberg dramas are all battles between an empowered, independent woman and a defensive, vengeful male. And that’s Fur, albeit with fewer poisonings and more laugh lines.

venus1In both Strindberg’s and Sacher-Masoch’s writings, we get the same ice queen (hated or adored), the same 19th-century contempt and longing for women. 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 they both shared a reductive view of the sexes. At the time, it was revolutionary. It seemed bold because it’s so binary; there’s no middle-ground, no human exchange of affections. There’s only power or weakness, seduction or force.

Of course, that kind of imbalance and tension — as the New York Times pointed out recently — is  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 really not all that daring. 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 urgent or violent. It’s entertaining because it plays at turning the tables; it doesn’t kick them over.

It’s a game, a tease, specifically about who is Vanda really? I won’t spoil it by revealing Ives’ big secret, but I will say it’s unconvincing. It’s a let-down because it takes this confrontation out of the realm of the 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. Fur isn’t really about a demand for equality, it’s about which gender gets to be in charge and have fun wearing the boots.

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 give-and-take, a come-hither-but-get-outta-my-face that’s a result of practice and skill. Hury, as noted before, has become our local go-to guy for playing heartless alpha males. But if Fur is all about the director’s comeuppance, 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 handcuffs, and b) he’s really losing something if he loses her. 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.

That goes a long way to conveying the fun of Fur. Ives doesn’t cut very deep. Out of respect for Sacher-Masoch’s English translator, it must be said his play is not particularly savage. But it does tantalize and amuse.