It’s incredibly rare that a play succeeds not only in presenting a story filled with sharp wit and thought-provoking themes, but also packaging all of this into a succinct and neatly intermissionless timeframe. “Venus in Fur,” Cleveland Playhouse’s (CPH) latest theatrical endeavor, is a vibrant example of such a rarity. The play is a modern adaptation written by David Ives, of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel of the same name, originally set in 1870. Although not a phenomenon that will redefine the world of theater, “Venus” certainly inspires both more laughs and more reflection than most of CPH’s current season.
At first glance, “Venus” appears to be a deceptively unadorned, even simplistic play. As it opens, the play’s only two characters sit in an almost-empty studio that used to be a sweatshop, reading, believe it or not, a play. Yet, from the first carefully designed drip of water from the hole in the studio’s ceiling onto the stage floor, one can see that there is a craftsman’s hand at work behind the simple façade; the beauty lies in the execution. This could very well characterize the whole play. It possesses an intricately layered and complex play-within-a-play plot structure that explores not only the relationship between the novel’s original characters but also between the actress and the director and finally, between men and women in general.
Shifting effortlessly between their roles, the cast demonstrated exceptional acting. In particular, Vanessa Wasche stands out for her portrayal of Vanda. When Vanda Jordan enters late for her audition, all sopping and soaked from a rainstorm, her heels clattering as rudely on the floor as her profanity echoes on the stage, one would hardly think her capable of playing Fräulein von Dunajew (whose first name, incidentally, is also Vanda), the classy, erudite, yet free-spirited girl of the late 19th century, let alone the cruel mistress she later becomes. Instead, Wasche’s Vanda comes off between silly and slightly charming, a struggling actress who sways Director Thomas Novachek with her persistence rather than allure. Yet, when Thomas finally gives in and begins reading the script with her, she transforms, literally from one second to the next, from Vanda Jordan, struggling actress, to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s late 19th century feminine ideal. It’s more than just voice or posture or costume that changes, it’s the essence of the character. It’s brilliant and the audience can more than understand Thomas’ shock at the change.
Thomas, as well as Herr Doktor Severin von Kushemski (the character from Sacher-Masoch’s novel) are portrayed just as brilliantly by Michael Brusasco. In contrast to Wasche’s performance, which emphasizes her ability to embody the different roles so completely, Brusasco’s Thomas is characterized by his resistance to change his character. Admittedly, I was initially a little put off by the way he half-heartedly read Kushemski’s lines, but I soon realized that by doing so, he was remaining in charge above the play, as a director. It’s when he becomes more engrossed in the play he’s reading that his control recedes and the locus of power shifts ambiguously between director and actress.
Ambiguity is, in fact, both the highlight and the main strength of the play. The word, emphasized by Thomas at a few noted points throughout the play, comes to characterize it as a whole. Over time, it becomes clear that not only is the balance of power between the characters not clear but also aspects of the characters themselves. Thomas is in charge and takes a sometimes imperious tone with Vanda; he is the director. Yet, occasionally he answers his phone and as he talks to his fiancé on the other line, he visibly shrivels up, fawning and obsequious. Does he compensate at work for his lack of authority at home? Does he feel emasculated by his fiancé’s successful career while he scrapes by as a playwright?
This expresses itself toward the end when he takes over the role of Vanda, insisting he can do it better. He trots around in the fur with relish and one has to wonder if it’s not the character of Vanda that Thomas identified with as he spent long hours carefully adapting the ancient German BDSM novel into a play. It also raises some questions about changing gender roles a century after the novel was written.
This same ambiguity manifests itself in Vanda’s character, whose origin is nebulous as the Joker’s scars. Perhaps most interesting was an exchange between Vanda and Thomas in which Vanda insists that Kushemski turns Vanda into a monster. Thomas counters that perhaps Kushemski just brings out an aspect of Vanda’s personality that was already there. The same could be said of Vanda’s character in the overarching play. She resists but Thomas begs her to continue. “You’re evil,” she says at least twice.
Maybe he is. Maybe he is manipulating her just as Kushemski manipulates Vanda into dominating him.
The fantasies of men can be scary things: Even when they wish to be powerless and dominated, they remain in control.
The play handles these questions and complex themes with humor and a sharp wit. Despite being a play named after the goddess of love, it is ultimately more earthly and funny than divine and sexy. Some of the best scenes include Vanda’s improvisational Venus scene in which she portrays a terrifyingly funny “Germanic” Venus complete with a few deep-throated utterances of the word “Jas.” Likewise, it’s hilarious to watch Thomas prancing around as Vanda, ludicrously aping female mannerisms.
Nevertheless, while “Venus” is very successful when it brings Sacher-Masoch’s fetishistic romance down to an earthly level, it occasionally takes itself too seriously and, in approaching the divine, gets burnt by the sun. In particular, when Thomas dresses Vanda in leather boots, a rather awkward two minutes of zipping ensues that did more to raise my eyebrows than my heartbeat. Likewise, I found it difficult to take the final scene seriously and, even with the thunder, Vanda just wasn’t Venus, she was just Vanda. In coming down on a serious note, the play drifted away from the playful and humorous ambiguity that had been its strength, thus making the ending seem a tad off-key. It’s a minor complaint.
I can’t say “Venus in Fur” was divine comedy, but it was definitely an earthly delight.