Where do I begin in singing my praises of the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s enormously satisfying production of David Ives’s Venus in Fur?
I might as well begin with the play itself, which is a provocative and canny – and rather sexy, I might add – work about erotic desire, power and manipulation. The story revolves around an audition for a fictional new play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 quasi-pornographic novel Venus in Furs, which explored the dimensions of what later came to be called masochistic desire (after its author). As Ives’s play opens, director/playwright Thomas (Christian Conn) is about to leave after a long day of not finding the perfect actress to play the lead role of “Wanda von Dunayev,” his play’s reluctant dominatrix, when in barges a young actress, Vanda (Whitney Maris Brown), begging for a chance to audition even though she’s hours late for her scheduled time. She won’t take no for an answer, and Ives soon has her bewitching Thomas in a cat-and-mouse game that niftily maps the dynamic of the humiliating audition process onto the masochistic desire for degradation that is at the heart of both Sacher-Masoch’s novel and Thomas’s play.
Ives’s writing is alternatingly funny, terrifying, and exhilirating. Vanda is playing for higher stakes than just the lead in Thomas’s play, and her manipulation of both the situation and him is dazzlingly delightful. There is fantasy here: a fantasy of revenge and comeuppance, but also one that, harking back to Greek tragedy, speaks a warning to all who would provoke the gods with their presumption of superior knowledge.
The role of Vanda is a plum one for an actress. The character is wily, confident, and wickedly intelligent, and the actress playing her has to be able to whip back and forth between the 21st century Vanda, who seems to be blustering her way into an audition, and the sophisticated, aristocratic 19th-century Wanda of the play within the play for which she is auditioning. In addition, Vanda plays a number of other ruses as she uses Thomas’s Wanda to slip through his defenses. The superb, chameleon-like Whitney Maris Brown shifts between the various registers that the role demands with a seemingly effortless spontaneity, and her acumen as an actor shines through in her character’s lightning-quick intelligence. Conn is equally sharp as Thomas, and he brings heart and soul to a character that might easily fall into stereotype. Together, these two actors make the stage crackle with an almost electric charge.
The production’s design deserves praise as well. David M. Barber’s set reproduces the kind of all-purpose room one might rent from an old school or YMCA to use as a rehearsal studio, a little dingy and downscale, with nice details like a small note above the door lock that you might imagine reminds users to turn out the lights upon leaving. Tilly Grimes’s well-curated costumes allow Brown to utterly transform herself from leather-clad modern sex diva to demure nineteenth-century lady in the blink of an eye. Zach Moore’s sound design brings the ominous threat of a storm into the space, and Peter West’s lighting design adds in the frisson of magic that hovers at the edges of the play.
Readers, I’m aware I was a little hard on Tru, the Public’s last production. But with Venus in Fur the theater caps off what has otherwise been a really successful season with an edgy gem of a play, one that has it all: humor, suspense, brilliant dialogue, intriguing characters, outstanding performances, and a cheeky, mischievous take on the dynamics of power and sex. Hail Aphrodite!