By Jocelyn McMahon
THREE WORDS SUM UP Venus In Fur: intelligent, sexy and relevant. As one of America’s most frequently staged modern plays, David Ives’ witty masterpiece, in which 21st-century sexual politics meet 19th-century S&M, has not certainly not lost any popularity since its premiere in 2010. If anything, the script has only grown in appeal after the rise of the Me Too movement. On one hand the show is a sexy sort of cat and mouse game between the two characters that attracts audiences; on the other it is a statement on inequality in the entertainment industry and the arbitrary abuse of power to manipulate.
We begin in a run-down underground theater in New York City in the middle of a thunderstorm; lights up on Thomas Novachek (Brian Ibsen) a young playwright/director who has just faced a grueling day of auditions for his two-person play adaptation of the novella Venus in Furs by Sacher-Masoch (keep in mind this is the guy whom the term “masochism” is actually derived from). After seeing an array of less than qualified actresses for the part of Wanda von Dunayev, he laments on the phone to his fiancé: “…young women can’t even play feminine these days, half are dressed like hookers, half like dykes.” Ready to throw in the towel he is set to leave for the day; then Vanda Jordan (Maria Gabriela Rosado González) walks in, and all hell breaks loose.
She enters as the stereotypical “bad actress”; brash and uncontained, crude and inarticulate, “It’s basically S-and-M porn, right?” she remarks about the script, much to Thomas’ dislike. As Vanda continues to fulfill one audition taboo after another, hours late for her slot, dressed in a costume which consists of leather lingerie and a dog collar, presenting a skimpy at this point rain-soaked resume, exposing that she has little to no familiarity with the script; Thomas finally loses patience and gives her the standard “We’re looking for someone a little different.” to which she retorts “Someone who isn’t me.” And somehow, through guilt and scary determination, Vanda finally convinces Thomas to let her read for the part.
She reads flawlessly, as if the part were written for her; abandoning the street Vanda who walked into the audition room, she transforms into another character fulfilling all the traits of the fictional Wanda that Thomas was convinced he couldn’t find in an actress. Soon we begin to question, is she really that oblivious or is she just playing a game with Thomas to prove a point about his assumptions and expose the messy power imbalance between them?
As director Raelle Myrick-Hodges points out in her director’s note: “It’s not magical for her, but rather a hustle she must reproduce over and over as an acting artist, showing men that she is much more that what they initially think of her.” I think most actresses can relate.
Thomas and Vonda continue to read and as she flip flops between the two personas of Vanda the lines of reality begin to blur. Thomas quickly realizes that Vanda isn’t just perfect for the character, she IS the character. The two begin a sort of intellectual foreplay, and as they read on, the power dynamic is turned on its head and soon Vanda is giving Thomas notes and direction, pointing out his sexism and taking control.
González has great comedic timing; talking a mile a minute her outspoken unpolished portrayal of a struggling actress is hysterical and yet relatable. She grabs audience attention from the moment she enters, and while her bad actress caricature is hysterical, there is much truth and sincerity that gains our compassion. Also, frustrations couldn’t be more candid: “I’m too young. Too old. I’m too big, I’m too small. My résumé’s not long enough. OK?” The ultimate frustration of the industry is understood and accurately conveyed in a humorous darkly honest way.
But while the comedy hits the spot, the transitions into a full sinister sex-goddess are a little unconvincing. While González certainly can crack the whip (at some points quite literally) on Ibsen’s Thomas, I can’t help but feel she doesn’t quite fill the shoes of the dominant role required for the character of Vanda.
Brian Ibsen is a great Thomas; his arch from pompous intellectual playwright/director to cowering submissive as his fantasies (and nightmares) unfold, is raw and authentic. But ultimately this is Vanda’s story not Thomas’.
Whether it be personal or directorial decisions, some of the choices seemed to mock the absurd, but ultimately sensual scenario, rather than embrace it, causing humor to hijack the play.
Though the set of Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s Venus in Fur shows the audience that they are no longer in an outdoor amphitheater, but in a New York audition room, it’s really the lighting and sound that immediately transport us there. The lightning effect we see seconds before the thunder which is not only heard, but felt. The costume and prop choices are on point, and the songs for the background music are definitely Shazam-worthy, but as a good audience members our phones should be off.
Overall the point of the show is made. Thomas, an archetype of the standard male director, has an absurd idea for what he’s seeking. But even when he finally finds it, is it really what he wants? Can he even handle the woman of his fantasies? Vanda steps in to teach Thomas a lesson on the abuse of power, and considering where he stands in the final scene, I think he gets the point.
As Myrick-Hodges also states: “A girl’s got a job to do. And it usually ends up with us having to turn into a damn goddess to be taken seriously.” I think that is clearly conveyed, I guess I was just hoping for a little more goddess.
Photo by Shmuel Thaler