Thomas is auditioning actors for the role of Vanda in his adaptation of the novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The story is well-known for its erotic content and representation of dominance and submission in sexual relationships. Thomas thinks he has seen every actor in town and none fit the bill until a real-life Vanda comes running into the room. Over the course of the night the two dip in and out of Sacher-Masoch’s world and become lost beyond the boundaries of reality.
Vanda (Caitlin Williams) and Thomas (Zach Selmes) are immediate sparring partners at odds in trying to extract something from the other. Once Thomas agrees to audition Vanda, there is an electricity between them, connecting them through the characters Vanda and Severin. David Ives’s construction of a play within a play allows for complex layering of character and circumstance that muddles the distinction between the actors and their characters. Motives and meaning are complicated and sometimes shrouded as the sexual tension builds and Vanda and Thomas lose sight of the world outside the audition room.
Emma Burns’s direction focuses on the physical as equal to the psychological, moving the actors in a constant to and fro that amplifies the disparity between moments of conflict and connection. The lighting design from Hannah Crane makes commendable use of the space to influence atmosphere while irregularities of structural poles and the rig caused disappointing inconsistency. Additionally, the costuming amplifies Ives’s interest in sexual difference with provocative lingerie and accessories from a kink aesthetic.
Williams and Selmes are precise and excellently controlled in their rendition of this play. They bring an intoxicating energy and excitement to the stage that is easy to watch for the full 90 minutes. Particularly for Williams, with her vibrancy as both versions of Vanda, the obstacles of the script(s) are delivered easily and with the necessary nuance. The unlikeability of Selmes’s Thomas is offset by the compatibility of Williams’s combative Vanda in a complicated and interesting dynamic that continues to shift and change throughout the performance.
Vanda is a destabilising force for Thomas in the way she upsets his high sense of himself, challenging the real life implications of his great intellectual and artistic creation. For Thomas, subjugation and humiliation are thought experiments but for Vanda, and women worldwide, the scramble for control in unsolicited and uncomfortable situations hits close to home. And here rests the crux of Vanda and Thomas’s power imbalance: intellectual and imaginative agency. Without making too large an issue of the body/mind dichotomy, routinely Vanda is denied intellectual ownership of the script or her character. She is repeatedly told by Thomas that she doesn’t understand and her readings, suggestions, and extrapolations are inadequate to his intellectual and creative authority. With this in mind, try as she might and woo as she does, Vanda will never best Thomas because they are playing at different games.
Venus in Fur is purported to be a play about the battle for power between men and women as made real in sexual domination. It’s particularly interested in sexual difference and desire and all the ways men and women (mis)understand each other. However, Vanda’s control, as she fights for it, is always superficial; playacting at power but without the capital to substantiate it. By the end of the play, in Vanda’s crescendo, she makes manifest Thomas’s vengeful goddess creature, stripped of her humanity and reaffirming the process of humiliation that brought her into his imagination, and thus into being.
This production of Venus in Fur is a notable evocation of complicated sexual and power relationships presented very well by Burns and her team.
Venus in Fur is running at 107’s Performance Space from April 10th – 13th