The latest standout show in the increasingly competitive and showy Austin theatre scene is Venus in Fur by David Ives at the Austin Playhouse, playing from January 3rd through the 25th, 2014. The Austin Playhouse is housed temporarily within a mall storefront in Highland Mall, where it has been for its last two vibrant seasons awaiting the completion of its own dedicated theatre. The mall look gives the theatre a modern but somewhat conventional vibe, and its space within is certainly audience friendly and comfortable, but Venus in Fur, playing on its stage, counters all of that with its edgy, avant-garde, visually stunning, and immensely thought-provoking content.
Venus in Fur by David Ives is a new, highly regarded American play making the rounds of Texas and national theatres. It was published in 2010 and is now the currently most-produced and requested play for production in the 2013-2014 season. Austin Playhouse’s production of it is second to none. The play is based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novelette Venus in Furs, the Bible and Sears Catalog of fetish masochism. Playwright Ives makes a specialty of revisiting literary and historical themes and giving them massive updates to align with 21st century values and humor. Venus in Fur is one of his best efforts so far. Austin Playhouse is doubling down on Ives, next producing Ives’s The Liar, an adaptation of French playwright Pierre Corneille’s 17th century comedy masterpiece of the same title. That production goes up in February of 2014. Stay tuned.
The setting of Venus in Fur is a Manhattan rented rehearsal studio, in which a young playwright named Thomas (G. Gray Haddock) is holding auditions for a self-production of his new play, a stage adaptation of von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs. The auditions have not gone well, every scheduled actor has come and gone, and none are any good. The action starts with Thomas on the cell phone with his fiancée, complaining about it. A furious electrical storm is ginning up outside the studio. The door opens but nobody enters for a few seconds. Then a woman steps in with a duffel bag of costumes and says she is there to audition. Her name is Vanda (Molly Karrasch); what a coincidence, so is the female character in Thomas’ play. Thomas says no, he would have known if that same name were on the audition list of actors. Vanda says her agent failed to call him; she’s ready to read. She pulls out the full script from her duffel instead of the few sections of text called audition sides normally made available to auditioners. Thomas asks how she got the entire script; it hasn’t been released yet. She says she doesn’t know. She says she glanced through the script on the subway coming over, but when she starts reading, she doesn’t look at the script. She recites the lines of the play perfectly, in character.
In these first few minutes of the play, Playwright Ives is more than telegraphing the audience that absolutely nothing in this rehearsal studio is as it seems. The truth, then and now, is hard to come by, and, just as in life, theatre audiences have to wait for it; but unlike in life, the waiting here is delightful. Vanda has the whips, chains, dog collars and edge on Thomas. Thomas has only biting repartee in defense; they seem evenly matched. The action of the play addresses, plainly and directly, the shifts in dominance between men and women. Layers of plot and nuance are added on from the very beginning like diaphanous veils floating down to drape the set and actors. Thomas and Vanda become multiple characters as they go back and forth between the studio and the world of Venus in Furs, the play within the play. They address the contest between actors and directors, men and women, upper and lower classes, masters and slaves, goddesses and vapor. Bondage fetishism is explored as a high-stakes game born of all these contests and mined for its metaphoric value in illuminating them.
Eventually the shifts in the action describe a very clear vector that brings us to understand why Thomas the playwright had to write the play and accept the seismic changes wrought in him by it, under Vanda’s guidance. That tiny pinball of self-recognition pinging back and forth insistently in Everyman’s mind may or may not come to rest. It is worth the ticket price to see how these characters resolve this. And the truth?—the truth is doled out in poisonous nuggets to do ill, not good. Perhaps the core brilliance of Ives’s play is that the truth, manipulated just so, can produce a frisson of horror in anyone. At the end of the play, the veils of every layer vanish to reveal one of the clearest and sharpest endings ever, flavored with a dash of magical realism and an electrical storm outside the rehearsal hall.
Every adult should do whatever he or she has to do to see this play. The Austin Playhouse production of the white-hot Venus in Fur by David Ives rewards audiences on many levels and is exceptionally well done. Happy audiences will remember this one for years. The play runs until January 25th at the Austin Playhouse in Highland Mall.