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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 translator of Venus in Furs seems almost too perfect. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, Venus in Furs inspired the term “masochism” with its now-classic erotic-disciplinary drama. A trembling, refined, male narrator, Severin, begs a woman, a baroness, to grasp her true, commanding self by beating and humiliating him in various ways. She eventually does — she actually has him plow a field at one point — and it certainly helps if she treats him like a dog while wearing the requisite fetish equipment: furs, spike heels and whatnot.

The woman who first translated all this into English — the translation that playwright David Ives used for his witty, stinging comedy of sexual revenge onstage at Circle Theatre — the woman 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 her 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 Sacher-Masoch dreamed of. She managed to publish a translation of what was then considered, at best, illegal, high-class smut and, at worst, a case study of mental illness. To do so, Savage must have been intelligent, daring, open-minded, capable — and, it seems, more than a little elusive.

Intelligent, daring, highly capable and more than a little elusive is a fair description of Allison Pistorius as Vanda, the young actress in Circle Theatre’s Venus in Fur. Vanda bursts in, rain-wet and too late, to a theater audition. Thomas (Chris Hury), the director and author of the play, has just spent a frustrating day auditioning dozens of young actresses for his stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s book. An autocrat and more than a little sexist, Thomas dismisses them all as idiots, incapable of embodying the truly “feminine” he has imagined. “I need a sexy young woman with classical training and a scrap of brain in her skull,” he fumes.

At first, Vanda is even more exasperating. She’s a bit ditsy, a motormouth, and in between vehemently cursing God, the rainstorm and her bad luck, she casually trashes Thomas’ beloved inspiration. The original novella and his play? 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 Sacher-Masoch’s baroness. And once she assumes the role, Vanda instantly becomes a focused, cultivated young Austrian woman, her movements and carriage precise, her expressions bemused but cutting.

venus1It’s a delectable transformation — which Pistorius pulls off with smooth 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. It’s a display of theatrical as well as sexual magic, this embodying different characters, this putting on authority with just a change of voice, a gesture, a new dog collar. It reminds us of what Ives has done here, translating Sacher-Masoch’s tale of gender dynamics into the gender dynamics of a stage audition.

In short, we’re watching a play-within-a-play, a play about role-playing, a play about S&M, which typically involves role-playing (people getting to be punished by, basically, mommy or daddy). Not surprisingly, the actress is much better at this flirtatious, 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 Miss Julie or The Dance of Death or Creditors, August Strindberg’s taut, boundary-breaking dramas, those battles between an empowered, independent woman and a defensive, vengeful male. Fur is like that — but with fewer poisonings and more laugh lines.

We’ve got the same ice queen, the same 19th-century contempt for women, plus the men who either despise them or, in this case, desperately want to be beaten by them: “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  Strindberg and Sacher-Masoch essentially share a very limited and limiting view of the sexes. It’s completely binary; there’s no middle-ground, no human exchange of affection, 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, feminist-inspired things Thomas, no doubt, finds boring with his fiancee.

But bringing up Strindberg shows just how Ives’ Venus is 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 naked or violent. It’s more about entertainingly turning the tables, not knocking them over.

One exchange can illustrate Ives’ and Vanda’s teasing ways. Vanda came dressed for the audition (just before she arrived, Thomas complained on his cellphone about all the actresses hauling in their ridiculous props and costumes). She whips off her raincoat to reveal full, black-leather, battle rattle: corset, stiletto heels, stockings, etc. How … obvious.

Almost disappointed, perhaps just to make conversation, he asks, where’d you get the outfit?

A bit glum, she admits, it’s a “leftover” from her days as a prostitute. We — like Thomas — are taken aback but also a little intrigued. Really? Hold for a second, then another. “I’m kidding!” Vanda announces, pleased with the gotcha.

This is the underlying game Venus plays throughout: Who is Vanda — really? I won’t spoil it by revealing Ives’ final, big ‘reveal,’ but will say I found it unconvincing, even a let-down. It’s a cop-out because it shifts to a ‘cosmic’ or spiritual level what had been a distinctly human matter. Also, Ives’ frequent equation of feminism with bondage & discipline — the dominatrix as the truly unfettered New Woman — is common enough, but it buys into Sacher-Masoch’s binary thinking. This isn’t actually about equality, it’s about which gender has the upper hand.

None of that seriously affected my enjoyment of Circle’s Venus. Hury and Pistorius won Dallas/Fort Worth Critics Forum Awards for their pair-up last year in Stage West’s Taming of the Shrew. I didn’t see it because, frankly, there have been too many Shrews crudely directed with a bullying Petrucchio and a shrill Kate getting easy laughs. I wasn’t going to risk enduring another. But Hury and Pistorius made 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 the local go-to guy for playing heartless alpha males, although if Fur is all about Thomas’ comeuppance, his fearful fall into his real passions/fears, Hury needs to be chillier, more hateful, at the start. Hury has the weary bitterness and misogny; 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 in S&M, we realize a) this can’t end in just a happy bedroom tryst and some friendly flagellation, and b) he’s really lost something. Now that’s revenge, hurting 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 when Vanda is in control, and that goes a long way to conveying the fun of Fur. Ives’ play doesn’t cut very deep. It’s not — in honor of Sacher-Masoch’s translator — it’s not particularly savage. But it does tantalize and amuse.

And perhaps now some smart theater company will schedule of production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses – just so they can cast Pistorius as the heartless Madame de Merteuil.