The setting is the kind of rehearsal room every performer is familiar with: dusty and relatively bare, the windows grimy and patched over, an ancient rotating fan. Slap-bang in the middle, though, there's a red velvet divan. Subtle shifts of light periodically change the feel of the place; it goes from being innocuous to feeling like those underground dungeons that leach the souls from human beings.
Thomas is the author of a play called — like this play we're seeing — Venus in Fur, based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's nineteenth-century erotic novel, Venus in Furs. He wants to direct it himself because — irony of ironies — he requires control over his material. It's the end of the day, and he's on the phone with his fiancée, describing the actors who have auditioned for the key role of Wanda with cool disdain. He'd like someone "who can actually pronounce the word 'degradation' without a tutor," he says.
Enter Vanda — and the name's similarity to the character's is no coincidence. She flies in holding a broken umbrella and reciting a litany of complaints about the weather and the guy who tried to grope her in the subway. She knows she's late, she says, but please, please let her audition. Thomas has no interest in her, because she embodies all the faults he's just described. She's loud, crude, and apparently barely literate, and beneath her raincoat, she's dressed like a porn-shop ad: dog collar, black leather bra and pants. But she's very persistent, and after a while, they start reading the play together.
Venus in Fur
Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 14, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.
Now Vanda's demeanor changes and her accent becomes refined. Although she claims only to have glanced at the script on her way over, it's soon evident that she knows it well and has also read the original novel. Strangest of all, she pulls a frock coat out of her bag, claiming she bought it for three dollars at a thrift shop. Reading the label, Thomas realizes it's an authentic nineteenth-century piece, made in Vienna.
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You know where this is going. Vanda is going to dominate Thomas physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, artistically. The only question is how she's going to do it.
And why. At times Vanda seems to be a feminist who sees the play as an insult to all women, or worse — "like, all about child abuse." Of Sacher-Masoch's original character, she comments: "She's as passionate as he is. She's this...innocent person. It's blaming her on every page." She's also incensed about the routine power struggle between directors and actors, particularly female actors, and intent on turning the tables. But maybe there's something stranger going on. Maybe she's the fictive Wanda come to life. Or perhaps this shape-changer who moves so easily from vulgarity to sophistication, seriousness to raucous humor, is the goddess Venus or Aphrodite herself, come to chasten those who sin against love and to show that love is as dangerous as it is seductive. She has a dig for synthetic sex goddesses, too: "I thought I'd add a little Marlene Dietrich," she says after assuming an absurd German accent.
I couldn't read Thomas any more than I could Vanda. Was he a male chauvinist being brought to justice, a frazzled intellectual confronted with a reality stronger and more vital than he could handle, or a man whose squirmy, secret desires were suddenly being brought into the light? (Early on, though, he'd said emphatically that a writer's characters don't necessarily reflect his own inner life.) The adjectives Vanda keeps confusing — "ambivalent" and "ambiguous" — can apply to the entire play.
Venus in Fur, written by David Ives, has been praised for its many levels of meaning, the constant shifts between reality and unreality. But the action gets repetitive after a while. You keep waiting for something that will change the trajectory — a reversal, a refutation, a shock or surprise — but it never comes. And despite all the talk of whipping and boot kissing, there isn't anything erotic, or even very human, about the evening. Perhaps this was deliberate; perhaps we were all supposed to be appreciating an intellectual exercise in meta-theater. Karen Slack is powerful as Vanda and often very funny, though not sensual (but again, this may be intentional). And it's wonderful to see Brett Aune, who's been working in Los Angeles, on a Denver stage again, bringing restrained intelligence to the baffling role of Thomas.