by SOPHIE KERMAN
Although the Jungle Theater‘s decision to produce Venus in Fur may be capitalizing on the spotlight “50 Shades of Grey” has placed on BDSM relationships, David Ives’s play – which pre-dates the publication of “50 Shades” by about a year – has greater ambitions than simply titillating its viewers.
A play about a theatrical adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella that put the “M” in S&M, Venus in Fur certainly has its fair share of sexual power plays. But if you are expecting a porno (as Vanda does, when she arrives to audition for the part of Wanda von Dunajew) you’re better off looking online. With a power dynamic between aspiring star Vanda and playwright-director Thomas that changes with each shift in costume and sharp exchange of dialogue, Venus in Furs has more to say about the parts we play (and dream of playing) than your standard porn ever could.
When Vanda (Anna Sundberg) enters Thomas’s (Peter Christian Hansen) rehearsal studio late, wet, and unscheduled, she seems like a complete mess, especially next to Thomas’s high-minded intellectual standards. But if you find Sundberg’s performance of Vanda impossibly grating, just wait a few minutes: in a fairly miraculous on-stage transformation, Sundberg flips a switch to become the worldly Wanda, whose every gesture and inflection is carried out with the calculated grace and insouciance of a confident 19th-century woman.
While Sundberg’s agile leaps between the airheaded Vanda and sensuous Wanda are astounding to watch, Hansen’s more gradual metamorphosis into the role of the submissive Severin von Kusiemski is no less skillful. His struggles to fit the unquestioning self-assurance of a modern man into a servant’s jacket are both unnerving and enlightening; whether Wanda’s white dress or Severin’s frock coat, just a single piece of clothing often serves as a gateway for Thomas and Vanda to explore a completely different persona with a richly-imagined agenda and deep hold over the other person.
These radical shifts in character, as well as the elasticity of the power balance between the two characters, is what makes Venus in Fur a fun play to watch. Hansen and Sundberg have good chemistry on stage – let’s face it, you’ve got two of the Twin Cities’ most talented and best looking young actors together in a play about sex, so you’d have to be a pretty cold-blooded person to raise any objection. Although director Joel Sass occasionally resorts to some pretty obvious staging choices (placing Vanda in Thomas’s chair to represent her added authority, for instance), the actors generally use the space well, with moments where distance serves to make the sparks fly even faster.
What frustrates Venus in Furs is that it seems to want to say more about gender, class, and power than it ultimately does. Ives pokes fun at this pretension several times during the play, but the script is so ripe with commentary about each character’s desires and motivations that it is a challenge not to try and read more into each new revelation. (Besides, without some sort of broader comment on gender, the ending just doesn’t make much sense.) My advice: put the play’s possible political agenda to one side, since either the direction or the writing doesn’t deliver that message quite clearly enough. Instead, just relax and enjoy this sharp-witted, sexually-charged ode to the liberating potential of a change of clothes or accent – which, when it comes down to it, is kind of the idea behind theater in the first place.