“Venus in Fur” – April 8, 2015

Something kinky has been taking place lately in the world of mainstream entertainment. Sadism and masochism are now to romantic comedy what romance and comedy use to be to romantic comedy. From the 2002 movie Secretary to 2011’s three-novel series 50 Shades of Grey (released as a movie earlier this year), many of our favorite new “love stories” are disturbingly, conspicuously twisted.

Standing somewhere between those two examples is David Ives’ Tony-winning 2010 stage play “Venus in Fur,” now running at Main Stage West in Sebastopol. Winner of the Tony for Best Play and Best Actress, Venus in Fur stands as a career high-water-mark for Ives, who’s best known for work like All in the Timing and Lives of the Saints, both collections of short one-acts. Ives’ work, by and large, has tended to sacrifice plot in the service of playing with language. Few playwrights are as masterful and entertaining with words and sentences as is Ives. But as an inventor of compelling stories, he’s always been a little lacking. Perhaps that’s the reason he’s chosen to adapt so many classic tales by other people when tackling full-length plays, works like Piere Corneille’s “The Liar” and Moliere’s “The Misanthrope.”

With “Venus in Fur,” Ives fuses his best instincts into one show, fashioning a language-rich play about a playwright-director who’s just completed an adaption of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs, by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

And here’s where it gets kinky.

Sacher-Masoch is the gentlemen for whom the term “masochism” was named, and Venus in Furs is the novel that brought the concept of sadomasochism into public awareness.

At Main Stage West, Anthony Abate plays Thomas the playwright, who has been auditioning actresses for the part of Vanda, an aristocratic woman who spontaneously takes a sex-slave and learns to mistreat him in degrading ways. As Thomas is about to leave his New York office, with the role of Vanda still uncast, in walks an actress whose name is also Vanda (mysterious!), played by Rose Roberts, who’s pretty much astonishing from start to finish. Vanda is a hot mess of an actress, dropping F-bombs left and right, desperate to audition though she’s three hours late, clutching a bag of props and costumes and a copy of the script she’s somehow gotten her hands on – despite the fact that almost no one has read it but Thomas and his producers.

It is difficult to describe what happens next without spoiling the delicate series of revelations and red-herrings Ives incorporates into his gradually intensifying – and frequently hilarious – if not exactly plot-heavy story. The audition quickly turns into a battle of wits, sexuality, and gender assumptions. Thomas is surprised when that Vanda seems to have memorized the entire script, and as the audition commences, he reluctantly reads the role of the sex-slave to Vanda’s dominatrix. Sacher-Masoch’s soft-porn story-within-the-story – which Vanda eventually eviscerates with her dead-on critical analysis – eventually overlaps onto the intensifying power-play taking place between director and actress.

There’s a bit of smoke-and-mirrors going on in Ives’ script, which would have little story at all were it not for the story within the story, but Ives’ work the smoke and mirrors well enough that few will notice that not much actually happens.

But then, what does happen is extremely entertaining and even a little thought-provoking, thanks largely to director David Lear, who adds a few bold additions to Ives’ original vision. Ultimately, this uneven but highly intelligent play has lots to say about what men and women think about men and women. Funny, thoughtful, and painfully to-the-point, Venus in Fur is so good it hurts.

“Venus in Fur” runs Thursday–Sunday through April 25 at Main Stage West. Mainstagewest.org.

I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.

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