"Who are you?" implores Thomas Novachek (Mark Alhadeff) of Vanda Jordan (Jenni Putney) midway through David Ives's Venus in Fur.
A vulgar actress whom he is auditioning for a sophisticated role in his new play has surprised him with her insights into the two characters and the meaning of the play. Baffled by the gulf between her crude affect and her perceptive interpretation, he tries to pry open the mystery. She puts him off: "I'm a pagan. I'm a Greek."
Thomas is adapting the 1870 novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The work— which added the word masochism to the world's vocabulary— is essentially a memoir, Confessions of a Supersensual Man, by a fictional nobleman who eagerly lets a woman, Wanda, degrade him more and more intensely in all ways, especially sexual. She simultaneously enjoys and loathes the game they're playing, but eventually jilts him for another lover.
He decides that a man can be only a woman's "slave or her despot, but never her companion."
Ives's play opens after Thomas, who will direct his adaptation, had a frustrating day of auditions for the part of Vanda. None of his 35 candidates had the combination of youth, beauty, sex appeal, worldly smarts and Classical training he sought— and none, he complains, could "actually pronounce the word degradation without a tutor."
Suddenly Vanda Jordan bursts into his austere studio, desperate to try out for the part. At first, she seems to be the 36th failure. Although she sports an "amazing bra" (Ives's script direction), her chitchat with Thomas shows brash social aptitude and no acting promise. Still, Vanda is wily and sexy, so he grants her a three-page audition.
She's a hit from the get-go. Thomas is facing away from her when she opens with an arch and accented, "Herr Doktor Severin von Kushemski?," delivered with such refinement and control that he turns, dumfounded, and simply stares.
Who's on top?
Vanda instantly transforms herself into a formidable candidate for the part. Director and actress continue the audition beyond their set limit, and by the time Thomas realizes that Vanda already owns the part, they have re-enacted the Sacher-Masoch original— and Thomas's entire draft— and have arrived almost at the end of Ives's play.
Vanda's interpretation of the original and the adaptation is borne out. Thomas thinks both the play and the novel concern "outsized emotions." No such romanticism for her, however: They represent sheer sexism, man over woman, no matter who's on top— degradation through gender.
Worse for Thomas, Vanda totally takes over his work. She understands the male character better than he does: "Kushemski loves it, getting led around."
"Does he really?"
"Will you stop it? You're so goddamn coy. It's like being on a fucking dance floor with you."
Vanda usurps his role as both director and adapter by ordering him to switch roles and then by adding a major scene to his draft—the opening scene of the original novel, in which the narrator has a troubling dream about Venus. Thomas says he didn't know how to fit it in. "You can't do Venus in Fur without Venus," Vanda insists.
Ives deals brilliantly with three narratives— Sacher-Masoch's, Thomas's and his own. His danger is that if our minds drift, we'll be lost.
Easy repartee is one vital way Ives concentrates our attention. Thomas explains that Aphrodite is simply the Greek version of Venus. "Hail, Aphrodite," she says flippantly.
"Hail, Aphrodite," he returns, adding, "Am I being insufferably pedantic?"
"Yes," she tells him. "But it's kinda cute."
Another Ives tactic is organization, forcing us to constantly re-evaluate the characters through their previous lines and actions. Vanda sports a dog collar around her neck and tells Thomas it's from her days as a prostitute: "I'm just kidding! Just kidding!" she quickly exclaims. Mere banter? More to the point, why does she still wear it?
Or when we hear the Aphrodite exchange, we do well by factoring into her emerging nature her earlier throw-away line, "I'm a Greek."
Ives also engages us through theater business, and he carries it much further than simply making a framing story for a play-within-a-play. Within the framework story, Thomas is clearly conducting an audition, but so is Vanda— she's testing him; they even talk about it. The roles they assume in the adaptation— and (in the background) the Sacher-Masoch original— are auditions for sexual submission. That makes six auditions.
Then all that is doubled when, late in the play, they switch roles. That's 12 auditions by my count.
The audience gasped
Now and then, a weak line gives away the play's direction. Playing Venus, Vanda calls Kushemski Thomas, but tries to retract: "Did I say Thomas? Whoops!" Later, when they argue about the play's meaning, Vanda insists, "Don't fuck with a goddess is what it's about."
Much more often, however, their dialogue hints at serious stuff. Thomas tells Vanda how he'd stage the new Venus scene, with Vanda suddenly appearing at the door, "like Venus in disguise." And she says simply, "Taking her revenge."
Just as Vanda steals Thomas's play, Jenni Putney steals Ives's. She seems to possess a plastic spine: Prussianly or Classically erect as the dominatrix Vanda/Venus/Aphrodite, or slumped into her stomach as the frantic and fragile auditioner. She's so convincing in both roles that the opening night audience gasped at the first transition, which also riveted Thomas.
Putney breaks the fourth wall strategically. At one point, as Vanda and Thomas argue on how to read a line, she recites it dully, then shouts it, then expresses it with so much expression that he's flattened. She swings her face from him to the audience and exclaims, "How's that?" On opening night, she elicited applause.
"Do I have the part?" she asks him toward the end. No, she has it all.♦
To read another review by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read a related commentary by Naomi Orwin, click here.