David Ives constructs an intricate psychological maze full of twists in “Venus in Fur.” And just about the time you realize there can be no logical way out of it, he blows it up. What began as an exploration of power-based relationships between men and women ends as a cosmic joke.
The title of the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte show comes from “Venus in Furs,” a short 1869 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Austrian who unwittingly inspired the term “masochism.”
His story follows a man who gets pleasure from being dominated by women, especially those wearing furs. The main character becomes the servant of a woman with whom he’s infatuated, even traveling with her overseas and rejoicing in her cruelty and disdain. (Sacher-Masoch actually did this himself.)
In Ives’ comedy, playwright/director Thomas (J.R. Adducci) has searched vainly for an actress to star in his adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s book. Out of a thunderstorm comes a woman who’s not on his audition list: Vanda (Charlotte Kate Fox), a sexy babbling bubblehead who wants to audition if Thomas will read the leading man’s part.
She turns out to be a first-rate actress, which surprises him. He’s even more stunned and unsettled when she can recite the entire script (not just her lines), when she knows far too many details about his fiancée, and when she exerts an undeniable allure.
The first twist, of course, is role reversal: She directs the director, making him rethink what he’s written. Is the “dominant” woman in his script a victim, forced into unnatural behavior by a perverse man? Do Sacher-Masoch and Thomas degrade women by depicting them as creatures who must either thwart men or destroy them by giving in?
Later, the director and actress struggle for control, slipping in and out of their characters. That we never fail to understand their motives and their attitudes is due partly to Nicia Carla’s intelligent direction and partly to the performances.
Local audiences know Adduci as a reliable, versatile actor, though he makes his main-stage debut at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte here. The Chicago-based Fox drops into Charlotte for the first time with bewitching unpredictability, just as Vanda does in the show.
Ives provides clues to his destination, tossing them into the script unobtrusively but fairly pointing us toward the last turn. (It may strike you as a bombshell; to me, it seemed a squib.)
Perhaps he’s echoing Sacher-Masoch, who wrote “Woman, as nature has created her, and man at present is educating her, is man's enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work.” (That was a radical idea 150 years ago.)
Or maybe Ives is just exercising his sense of humor, his gift for intelligent wordplay and his talent for sound plot construction. I still haven’t decided.
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