Power Play: ‘Venus in Fur’ Demands to Be Seen

If the shoe fits, fear it. Vanda (Whitney Maris Brown) aspires to play the dominatrix in shiny boots of leather, with Thomas (Christian Conn) as her footman.

If the shoe fits, fear it. Vanda (Whitney Maris Brown) aspires to be the dominatrix in shiny boots of leather, with Thomas (Christian Conn) as her footman.

Venus in Fur is really, really good. The play by David Ives is at Pittsburgh Public Theater through June 26. Go see it.

And that’s all that needs to be said. You can run along and order tickets; we’re done here.

But wait—you expect more? What are you trying to do? Make me suffer?

Do you know what agony it is to sweat over a keyboard while staring at a ruthlessly blank screen? Do you realize how excruciating it is to write something clever about a play that itself is so clever, filled with twists and turns that cannot be discussed in detail without including spoilers?

The play is so damned funny that I’ve already embarrassed myself at the theater by laughing loudly, more than once, in a high-pitched whinny that sounds like a horse on helium. After such degradation, would you have me wallow further by making paltry attempts to put into words the exact nature of the humor?

Very well, then! I shall be your theater-reviewing slave, for I secretly enjoy the sweet pain. But be forewarned, dear reader: If I tell you precisely how and why you should appreciate Venus in Fur, and if you read my words and take them to heart, the tables will be turned. You will become my opinion slave. Bwah hah hah!

Roots of the Romp

…Okay, I’ll stop now. The point of that crude mimicry was to convey the style and substance of Venus in Fur. It’s a play about power. Most prominently, it’s about sex and power—although it delves into the exercise of power from many angles, with a lot of table-turning along the way. The question of who’s running whom is central to the action.

And it does help to know a bit of backstory, which began in the real world of the mid-1800s with Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The first half of his surname is pronounced “soccer,” and the second part is the root of our modern word “masochism.”

In 1869, Sacher-Masoch signed a contract with his mistress, agreeing to serve as her slave if she wore furs while treating him cruelly. A year later he published the novel Venus in Furs, a fictionalized version of their relationship. This tale of dominance and submission became a cult classic. Over the years it inspired many knockoffs, including the Lou Reed/Velvet Underground song “Venus in Furs.” Eventually it prompted David Ives to write the play now at The Public.

Ives’ Venus in Fur—which opened to wild acclaim in New York in 2010—is a two-person play within a play, set up as follows: Theater director Thomas Novachek (played here in Pittsburgh by Christian Conn) has written a stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. As the lights come up, he’s pacing in his New York loft office, lamenting over the phone to his fiancée that he can’t find the right actress to play the dominatrix.

Vanda tries her part on for size, to Thomas' surprise.

Vanda tries her part on for size, to Thomas’ surprise.

Thomas is about to leave for home when a new candidate bursts in. It’s Vanda Jordan (Whitney Maris Brown), who appears utterly wrong for any acting job. She’s ditzy and disheveled. She apologizes for being hours late to audition. Worst of all, whereas Thomas is looking for an actress with intellectual depth—a majestic woman who can grasp and portray the marvelous subtleties he claims to have found in Sacher-Masoch’s tale—this Vanda comes across like an archetypal airhead of the social-media age. “Usually I’m really demure and shit,” she babbles, insisting that she can do “the S&M” role anyhow.

And Vanda will not be denied. She persuades Thomas to let her read for the part, with the writer-director himself playing the submissive man. As it turns out, the girl can act.

Gliding seamlessly into character, she becomes the archly seductive 19th-century mistress Wanda von Dunayev. Thomas is transfixed. Egged on by Vanda/Wanda, he digs deeper into his own role. The audition goes on, and on, and on. And that’s where the play’s real hilarity is, as well as its wonderfully ironic nuance.

Who’s on Top? 

What transpires in Venus in Fur is a dizzying merry-go-round of dominance and submission. Vanda and Thomas shift in and out of these roles. “I hand over all power to you,” Thomas declaims, reading a line from his play—yet at the same time giving Vanda stage directions, telling her where to stand. Vanda initially tolerates these intrusions—“You’re a director; it’s your job to torture actors!” she chirps—but you can tell she won’t put up with his uppity stuff for long.

Deeper and deeper they go, into whippings and thigh-high leather boots. At times the cat-and-mouse game becomes a confessional. “Am I insufferably pedantic?” asks Thomas, ashamed of his overbearing directorial manner. “Yeah, but it’s cute,” Vanda replies.

Then later, rebelling at the vortex that he’s been sucked into, Thomas storms: “Why do people think that playwrights are the people they write about?” Vanda’s answer: “Because they do that shit all the time.”

In short, Venus in Fur is a trip. It’s a power trip that explores just about every aspect of the games people play: the male/female thing, the director/actor and boss/worker things; if it involves people struggling to gain control, it’s here.

Maris Brown is tremendous as Vanda. Conn does justice to Thomas, too, playing his hand like a gambler who thinks he has rigged the game but is astounded to see the cards tucked up his sleeve.

Venus in Fur was nominated for the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. It didn’t win. I have trouble imagining the kind of play it would take to beat it.

Closing Credits and Ticket Info

Ives’ Venus in Fur is directed for Pittsburgh Public Theater by Jesse Berger. Through June 26 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. For showtimes and tickets visit The Public’s website or call 412-316-1600.

Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.