“Show it, don’t say it,” is the first rule of film, so it’s a good thing the very talkie Venus in Fur is a play—especially since this S&M comedy isn’t as sexy as Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, cerebral as David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, or edgy as Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (which was released 28 years ago).
On the upside, the Chicago premiere of David Ives’s play within a play features a charismatic performance by Rufus Collins and plenty of jokes that get big laughs—an attribute that cannot be undervalued.
The plot involves an audition with an actress named Vanda (Amanda Drinkall) running lines with Tom (Collins), the director who may cast her as the lead in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1869 novella Venus of Furs. In other words, they’re reading lines from a play. Sure, they periodically break to debate or flirt but all too soon they return to their scripts for more reading.
In addition to becoming rather monotonous rather quickly, this format doesn’t afford Vanda and Tom much room to unfold. Instead of revealing their true selves, they hide behind Sacher-Masoch’s characters so much, it’s difficult to know what they want and what they’re willing to lose to get it. There are no stakes and as a result, no tension.
Ten minutes into the play it’s very clear Vanda will land the role so why does the audition last another 90 minutes? If either wants to seduce the other, they'd have the whole rehearsal process to do so. And if, as the play suggests, Vanda is trying to trap Tom right then and there, the audience needs a motive. Was she a spurned one-night-stand he forgot? An actress whose career he thwarted? Or the lesbian lover of his fiancée? There are plenty of hints that she knows more than she lets on but between the text and Drinkall’s performance, it’s hard to get a real read on the character.
This ambiguity leads to the viewer’s ambivalence. Without a reason to root for or against Vanda, all the audience can do is hope Tom’s fiancée arrives soon to liven up a two-person one act that's hit a wall. Granted, a few twists are introduced in the last 30 minutes but like the characters, they wind up having little substance.
That’s not to say the play lacks style. The costumes by Jenny Mannis are flashy and fun, and Tony Award-winner Todd Rosenthal’s believable set is based on Goodman’s actual rehearsal rooms. But as authentic as that is, one can’t help wonder how effective the production could have been as a period piece had the play been staged as a straight adaption of the novella.
At least within a 19th century context, the subject matter would prove more provocative. But as it stands in the jaded confines of a contemporary setting, the well-meaning Venus in Fur is like Vanda’s lace panties: designed to be stimulating but too transparent in the end.
Venus in Fur performs through April 13 in Goodman’s Albert Theatre on 170 N. Dearborn Street in Chicago. Tickets ($25-$86) and more information is available at www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Venus.