When I told Stephen I was getting tickets to the Portland Center Stage production of Venus in Fur, he said, "I hope it's not so sexy it embarrasses me."
I hadn’t thought about that. I’d just heard that Venus in Fur is a play about a playwright / director who’s auditioning actresses for his own play Venus in Fur, based on the nineteenth century novelVenus in Furs (notice the s) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. That sounded innocent enough. Then, working, as I do, at Powell’s, I decided to make a see-the-play-read-the-book shelf tag to post along with copies of the novel in the stores, and I looked up which section the book is kept in.
So: yipe. Sexy embarrasses me when I'm all by myself - I hated to think about what it would do to my wussy self in public.
Come Saturday night, Stephen and I were two prudes off for a night of saucy theater - but the play about the play about the novel that gave masochism its name turned out to be a smart, funny and fascinating study on the subject of power.
Yes, it was also sexy.
The play starts with a crash of thunder and a flickering of the lights in the theater. It's the end of an unsatisfying day of auditioning actresses for his production of Venus in Fur, and director Thomas (David Barlow), alone in his studio, is set upon by the very-late-for-her-appointment actress Vanda. Wet from the downpour, she makes her entrance shouting f-bombs and shaking her fist at the sky, "Thank you, God, once again!" Though Thomas is dead set on not taking one more audition, Vanda begs and banters and charms - and powers her way into reading for him, and Venus in Fur becomes a play within a play, exploring not only the master/slave sadomasochistic relationship in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel but power play in general.
Vanda is hells bells theatrical, a daffy motormouth, a character who, if played just a titch differently, could easily be annoying. But Ginny Myers Lee is spot-on funny, and her performance, as it moves through the plot, gets more and more complex and subtle as our perceptions about who she is and what she's doing there change. Both Ginny Myers Lee and David Barlow are really strong actors, and the writing is smart and funny and full of tension.
Pretty much nonstop tension. Which the periodic bursts of thunder and flickering of lights from the storm outside complement nicely, reminding us not only of the physical tension in the air but the power play between gods that seems to arc over the entire play. As Vanda and Thomas banter and struggle and flirt and fight through their own power play and the characters in Thomas' adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's novel move through their own power play, the gods themselves - evoked in Thomas' script and in Thomas and Vanda's dialogue - thunder overhead.
I have to say, if I could see this one again, I would. It was that fascinating. Every turn of the two characters was another way to think about power, to examine and reexamine a subject that's far more complex than you'd think. Beyond the drama and humor and downright entertainment of this play, what I loved most was how it took that theme of power and put a magnifying glass to it - and then a kaleidoscope - and reminded us how every interaction we have is some sort of power play.
The question of power is in more than just the slave-master dance performed by Thomas and Vanda as their reading of Venus in Fur spills out beyond the audition. It's in, for instance, the way Thomas answers his cell phone when his fiancée calls. It's in the simple fact that in her high spike heels, Vanda is taller than Thomas. It's in the tiny feeling of naked in the middle of my chest as I watch Vanda and Thomas disrobe, Vanda into her black leather bra and mini skirt, Thomas simply taking his shirt off. I question myself throughout the performance. What does it mean that that wussy self I mentioned before is more embarrassed when it's the man who's disrobing? What does it mean that I feel embarrassed for the man, in particular, when he's playing the submissive role (a reaction I'm ashamed to admit)? As watcher of the play, how passive do I feel as the one being served the story? How powerful do I feel as the one smart enough to think all the smart thoughts I've been thinking about power while I watch the play, safe in my seat?
As you can see from this post: pretty damn powerful.
Venus in Fur is playing now through March 10th at Portland Center Stage.