1/09/2014

Huntington's "Venus in Fur": Dramatis Interruptus

 
Chris Kipiniak and Andrea Syglowski
in "Venus in Fur"
 
Ominously yet somehow fittingly, Huntington Theatre Company’s latest production, “Venus in Fur”, begins with a clap (of thunder). The 2010 play by David Ives, a Tony nominee for 2012 Best Play (after moving from Off-Broadway, where it premiered two seasons earlier), clocks in at a fast paced 100 minutes, with more stormy weather (much of it rather eerily timed) along the way. As directed by Daniel Goldstein, this work seems to suspend time, and brings to mind the fabled line from “All about Eve”: “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride”. The set-up is a simple one. Director Thomas (Chris Kipiniak) is casting the female lead for his own play, “Venus in Fur”, based on the 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose name was the source for the term masochism). After an unsuccessful day of auditioning thirty-five “idiot actresses”, in blows Vanda (Andrea Syglowski) to well-timed thunder. While the playwright Thomas is ready to call it a day, her persistence wears his resistance down and they begin to enact the roles of Severin von Kushemski, and Vanda von Dunajew, engaged in ever-escalating sexual combat. Syglowski, a one-woman acting dynamo, as the modern day Vanda, describes the story as “S&M porn”, while Kipiniak (who holds his own in both the present-day plot and the play-within-a-play) opines that it’s “a great love story”. Whichever view a theatergoer holds, it becomes clear by the time Ives’ play is consummated that this is all much less about sex than it is about sexual politics.

It also becomes more and more evident that the modern-day Vanda is decidedly more than she at first seems, as are her motives. While she‘s quick with retorts (as in her line “you don’t have to tell me about sado-masochism, I’m in the theater”), it’s obvious she knows a lot more about the play and the playwright than she first reveals. Thomas asks “whatever happened to femininity?”, then proceeds to attempt to portray the power of sexual dominance (“nothing is more sensual than pain…and humiliation”), but in point of fact displays instead the power of words. Not once but twice he refers to both of them as “explicable but not extricable” (explainable but not liberated from complications?). Both characters reference the Book of Judith: “The Lord hath smitten him and delivered him into a woman’s hand”. Vanda notes: “You’re an oddity, I’m a commodity”, describing Thomas’ play as about “sex, class and gender”. For his part, Thomas is rather bound (you should excuse the expression) to agree with her that the more he submits, the more power he has; as Vanda, or both Vandas, put it, “where all this ends…that is in your power not mine”. True, but not; to risk revealing a spoiler, she’s far more diabolical than that, requiring one’s attention to some subtle clues as to her preternatural knowledge.

What is also required is what Thomas calls “operatic emotions”, and both Kipiniak, and Syglowski (in the showier, what might even be called dominant, role), deliver. Both excel at performance art and the art of performance. In the wrong hands, this could easily be viewed as overwrought, but as directed by Goldstein and enacted by these two terrific actors, it’s a sexy, thoughtful and engaging battle, and often hilarious. The technical contributions, typically for this company, are all first rate, from the Scenic Design by Matt Saunders to the Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker (right down to the kinkiest of boots), Lighting Design by M.L. Geiger and significant Sound Design by Darron L. West. The sole criticism of the production might be that it could work better in a smaller venue for this “two hander” (though one might be tempted to call it a six or seven hander, given the numerous permutations and combinations of role reversals).

As the penultimate line of Ives’ play puts it, “Hail, Aphrodite!”, and as the last line of the play sums up: “Good!”. It has been a bumpy ride indeed, an ingenious premise with a sense of both humor and history that challenges many of our most cherished presumptions. As the old adage goes, this one doesn’t comfort the afflicted so much as it afflicts the comfortable. And, as is so often the case with sex, this work was intense, exciting, passionate, and over way too quickly.

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