"Venus in Furs" is not pornography. We are told this several times by Thomas, the playwright appearing in the play "Venus in Fur" (note the singular), now playing on the Geva Theatre Nextstage. In Geva's "Venus," Thomas is the writer and director of a theatrical adaptation of the controversial 1870 novel "Venus in Furs" by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — the book and writer that inspired the term masochism, as in sadomasochism, or S&M, the sexual kink involving domination and submission.
But the book, and the play about the book, and the play about the play, aren't about S&M. Not really. The play about the play, at the very least, is about men and women, how men see women, and how little has changed in the nearly 150 years since the source material was published.
The play is set in modern times, opening with Thomas the playwright-director (Todd d'Amour) bemoaning to an unidentified character on the other end of a cell phone about his failure to cast the lead in his stage version of "Venus in Furs." None of the several-dozen women he auditioned were right for the part of Wanda, who in the book is begged by dilettante Severin to dominate and degrade him to fulfill his sexual desires. Thomas explains to the person on the other end of the line that all of the actresses were too young, too old, too stupid, too inexperienced, or came dressed as "sluts or dykes," and not one of them displayed even a hint of old-world femininity.
Suddenly another actress, Vanda (Veronica Russell), bursts into the studio, supposedly hours late for an audition Thomas can't even find on the books. First impressions suggest that Vanda embodies all of the problems Thomas has found casting the play — she's crude, loud, unprofessional, and comes dressed in a corset and leather skirt. Thomas casually insults her and tries to shoo her out the door, but Vanda cajoles Thomas into letting her audition. She produces an 19th-century-style gown from a bag full of props, puts on an astonishingly convincing performance, and slowly reveals that she is quite familiar with both the source material and Thomas's play — and Thomas has no idea how she got the full script.
Both Thomas and the audience realize that there is much more to Vanda than she's letting on, and she sets about putting Thomas through a series of mind games that mirror the complicated power dynamic in the original novel. All the while she forces Thomas to explain his personal thoughts on women, and how they are presented in a play that, in the end, leaves the central female character in a can't-win situation: even when she does what the man wants, she's doing it solely for his satisfaction, and when she denies him she is being cruel.
Playwright David Ives has crafted a complicated meta-fictional structure that makes for fascinating viewing. One of the most interesting things about the play is that different people will likely have wildly different interpretations depending on the personal baggage they bring to the theater.
The characters switch from the director-actor dynamic seamlessly into reenacting scenes from the play and book, and then back to analyzing the subtext of what's going on before diving back into the next scene. Gender roles are dissected as Vanda explores not only Wanda, but also the goddess Venus herself, and Thomas takes on the role of Severin. In the end, the roles are reversed, and the naked truth of Thomas-Severin's take on female sexuality is made fully apparent.
The cast features only two actors. Veronica Russell is truly sensational as Vanda, bringing to life at least three nuanced characters, slipping between them easily and fully. She delivers a remarkable range of emotions and affectations, and there's not a moment of the performance that feels unbelievable. Her assured performance makes the last-second twist more believable, even possibly inevitable given the context of the show.
Todd D'Amour initially overplays the role of Thomas, all twitchy and manic, but his take ultimately rings true to a creative mind with an ego problem. He becomes much more interesting once he starts acting in the role of Severin, and it's fascinating to watch his justifications crumble as he becomes completely intoxicated by the livewire in front of him.
Director Aimee Hayes keeps the play moving forward as the two characters engage in a dance in which the partners deliberately step on one another's toes. There are times where the circuitous logic of the play becomes repetitive, but that's kind of the point. As Vanda tries to come at the material from multiple angles, Thomas continues to either dismiss the criticisms or try to rationalize his stance. He simply doesn't get it. And as anyone who has tried to argue the point of female sexual equality in a still-patriarchal society can attest, that is not at all uncommon even in 2013.