You don’t need to be familiar with the 1870 novella to appreciate what is currently playing on stage at Spotlight Theatre in Swarthmore. Indeed, David Ives’ 2010 erotic dramedy VENUS IN FUR draws inspiration from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs” but is by no means an adaptation.
Without giving a Wikipedia-length summary, the source material concerns a man, Severin, so infatuated with a woman, Wanda (pronounced “Vanda”), that, after some persuasion on his part, she allows him to submit to being her slave. He encourages her to repeatedly degrade and dominate him, often sensually. (To this end, the author’s surname is telling.) Eventually, Severin loses interest in being subservient to Wanda and takes on a cynical view on women in general, deciding that woman can be either a slave or master to man but never his equal.
The play VENUS IN FUR (singular) is set in modern day. Playwright/director Thomas Novachek (Thomas-Robert Irvin) has just finished an exhaustive day of auditions at a dreary rehearsal studio where an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novella he has written will be performed. The candidates for the female lead have been less than inspiring and he is ready to close down the casting call when, out of the rain, runs in what at first glance appears to be a ditzy actress, desperate for an audition, without any knowledge of the play or of culture in general (Amanda Panrock). She calls herself Vanda Jordan to Thomas’s amusement. Begrudgingly, he allows her to read for the part.
To Thomas’s surprise, Vanda completely embodies the role of Wanda, both in accent and character. Although she previously claimed to have barely glanced at the script beforehand, it is evident that she has memorized the entire piece. Odder still, she has costumes in her bag for both her and Thomas, who reads opposite her as Severin. Thomas’s indifference toward her slowly transforms into an inexplicable sexual fascination as Vanda proves, with a great deal of mystery, to be much more than meets the eye. And down the rabbit hole we go…
There are many questions at play in VENUS IN FUR. The answers are hinted at, some more so than others. It is satisfying to see that Thomas, the distant academic, has less knowledge of the subtext of the source material than this perplexing newcomer. Even more satisfying (and more curious) is Vanda’s turn from the vacuous airhead to the all-knowing, carnal temptress. Instead of plot twists, there are character twists, and these become the lifeblood of the play. The commentary on sexism in the source material, and the turn that develops from it during the production is especially intriguing.
In the hands of lesser talent VENUS IN FUR could easily become a jumbled mess, lost amongst David Ives’ striking and challenging dialogue. Fortunately, director Cindy Nagle Walton has assembled a dynamic duo to tackle these demanding roles. Irvin excels as the frustrated director who consistently refuses to face his inner desires (and fears) when provoked. And provoked he is.
Panrock has the more difficult character and is, in a word, fantastic. She is capable of handling every role the play throws at her. She effortlessly switches between an airy facade and a dark femme fatale. She exhibits both humor and desire when needed. She is a walking enigma, flippantly deflecting Thomas’s probing questions when she contradicts something she said earlier and turning the subject back to him. Her chemistry with Irvin is solid and enrapturing.
The lighting, sound and set are all functional, but the performances and Nagle Walton’s smart staging are what really drive this piece. Unfortunately, the audience’s attention is only distracted from the stage by whispers by the tech crew at the back of the space. This is the third show I have seen since Marple Newtown Players changed names and homes, and I’ve encountered this issue each time. The church basement they presently use as a performance space is very intimate. Every whisper can be heard. Having run lighting and sound boards myself, I know there is need for communication, but I’m hopeful Spotlight will find a way to eliminate this chatter in the future.
The last comment is by no means a deal-breaker. VENUS IN FUR is a terrific production that stays with you long after the curtain call. My fiancée and I enjoyed the better part of an hour after the show debating the themes behind what we had just seen. The performances alone are worth the price of admission.
VENUS IN FUR
by David Ives
Directed by Cindy Nagle Walton
July 18 – 26, 2014
129 Park Avenue
Swarthmore, PA 19081