Emily White ’16 /Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
David Ives describes his play Venus in Fur, a 2012 Tony nominee for best play, as “a very powerful, very bad idea.”
A modern interpretation of Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s controversial 1870 novel, Venus in Furs, the play, which explores a sado-masochistic relationship between the characters Severin von Kushemski and Vanda von Dunajew takes a risk by approaching the taboo subject matter of the novel, but in the end, the play benefits with a modern twist on the subject. There’s no exception to excellence in the stunning interpretation the Huntington Theatre Company presents in it’s production.
Ives’ Venus in Fur transports the story into a 21st century casting room, where a frazzled playwright/director, Thomas Novachek (Chris Kipiniak), is hopelessly searching for a Vanda for his adaptation of the original Venus in Furs. Out of the storm outside, almost miraculously, appears Vanda Jordan (Andrea Syglowski), an actress both insufferable to Thomas and also perfect for the role. Vanda coaxes Thomas to read from the script, an adaptation of the original text, with her, and Ives’ script comes alive as the characters seamlessly switch between the suppression and melodrama of the 1870s and the skepticism and cynicism of today’s world.
Ives’ adaptation challenges the distinct gender roles laid out in Sacher-Masoch’s original text and the less obviously distinct gender roles that exist today by contrasting the two eras and allowing the actor and director to comment on the nature of the work between their script reading. It is a beautiful and intricate text, highlighted by the Huntington Theatre Company’s simple, realistic set, a small rehearsal room that has become slightly decrepit with age. With a subtle and detailed hand, the audience is transported into the world of manipulation so familiar to actors and directors like Vanda and Thomas, but also so familiar to gender relations on a universal level.
Syglowski not just shines, but explodes as Vanda. She has the challenging task of playing two extremely contrasting characters, alternately seductive, sarcastic, proper, intelligent, frank, and, a bit ridiculous. An actress with great openness and confidence in herself is required to take on such a role, which also requires wearing nothing but a corset for a good portion of the show.
Syglowski rises to and surpasses the task. She slyly and convincingly shifts the power dynamic from a desperate actress seeking a role from a confident director to an almost goddess-like figure in full control of a groveling insecure man. Syglowski manages to be both entirely unassuming and entirely terrifying at the same time, which makes her performance sizzle with so much passion. The dynamism of this character leaves Kipiniak a difficult task in the role of Thomas.
Kipiniak is a bit outshined by Syglowski’s inspiring and electrifying performance. In the role of Thomas, he almost encounters a greater challenge. The role involves an actor playing someone not used to acting who is trying to act, while also maintaining a position of normalcy in relation to the enigmatic figure of Vanda. The actor playing Thomas must give space and give in to the actress playing Vanda while also presenting some sense of strength.
In this sense, Kipiniak masters the sensibility of Thomas but struggles a bit with the balance of power between the two characters. Perhaps he gives into Vanda a bit too quickly. That being said, the relation and chemistry between the actors is both believable and engaging, and the overall production succeeds in dealing with extremely sensitive subject matter. This play has the ability to be either incredibly uncomfortable or incredibly appealing, but nowhere in between, and the Huntington Theatre Company’s production gives the show the sex appeal it deserves.
When Thomas argues that “we go to plays to find passion we don’t find in our lives,” Vanda counters that “we go to life to find passions we don’t find in our lives,” which encapsulates not only the relationship between these characters but also the struggle between escapism and the desire for visceral experience. In this way, we see Thomas as a representation of escapism and of those who turn to others or to entertainment to find thrill and to experience risk.
There are those today who spend their whole lives in front of the television, filling themselves vicariously with the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” of others, from the safety of their own homes. Vanda is the antithesis, who also exists in our culture today. She is those who feel they need to experience everything for themselves firsthand, and often experience the opposite extreme to the Thomases of the world, becoming self-destructive with their habits. It is this clash between desire and fear, isolation and attention, intelligence and emotion that defines our culture today, but is rarely discussed. Venus in Fur shows us what happens when those ideals collide, and exposes the masochistic nature of the culture we live in.
This show is a must-see, but, of course, for mature audiences only. The play runs through February 2nd at the Huntington Theatre Company for tickets and showtimes visit http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2013-2014/venus-in-fur/.