When David Ives began the process of writing Venus in Fur, he says he started with “a very powerful, very bad idea.” He wanted to explore the intricacies of a sadomasochistic relationship on stage. He had recently revisited Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, a novella that chronicles a master-slave relationship that in its day was deemed so provocative it inspired psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to name the psycho-sexual condition masochism after the author. Ives says he was “dramaturgically electrified” while reading the novella because its relationship between the troubled writer Severin von Kushemski and his mysterious neighbor, Vanda von Dunajew, “sparks with the friction of two buttoned-up people in an erotic power play who challenge, resist, and disagree with each other even while bound by mutual sexual attraction.”
Ives was compelled to create an adaptation that would bring to the stage the incendiary relationship that flourishes when Severin, who is infatuated by the idea of completely subjugating to a woman, signs away his power to Vanda. But when Ives’ first drafts — although filled with the intensity and passion — proved unsuccessful, Ives was faced with a bigger question: “What does this relationship in 1870, however complex, have to do with us in the early 21st century?”
Ives decided to strip his adaptation of the period costumes and language and “crossed out everything that wasn’t drama and anything that was not conflict.” The result is an explosive 90-minute play that re-envisions Kushemski and Vanda’s relationship in a modern setting: an audition room in which a director is casting his new adaptation of, none other than, Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs. The play thus moves away from literally showing us masochism, and instead gives fresh insight into what drives humans to seek these encounters and whether masochism is concealed in familiar relationships. Ives transforms his adaptation into a game The New York Times critic Charles Isherwood says is, “something darker, stranger, and altogether more delicious.”
The play opens with playwright and director Thomas Novachek complaining to his fiancée about being unable to cast Vanda because most of his applicants “sound like six-year-olds on helium” who “bring along props and whole sacks full of costumes.” He is interrupted when Vanda, a ditzy New York actress, walks into the audition room drenched from the rain, several hours late, and carrying a sack full of props and costumes. Donning her Screaming Mimi’s leather outfit, Vanda is clearly the opposite of what Thomas had envisioned for his character — he needed “a woman” with the stature, poise, and dominant energy that would make a man submit to her every word. Desperate to prove him wrong, Vanda persuades Thomas to let her read. She proceeds to give a stellar audition, proving such command of the character and text that it throws off the balance in the room.
Vanda and Thomas’s whirlwind of role-playing blurs the line between fantasy and reality and as Vanda takes on characteristics of the playwright/director and Thomas slowly succumbs to her seductive energy, Sacher-Masoch’s psycho-sexual games suddenly become the reality of the rehearsal room. Ives distorts the power dynamic that exists between Sacher-Masoch’s characters, the director/actress, and the gendered codes between men and women, and as audience members, we may not be sure who initiated the game and who orchestrated the moves. Was it Vanda, in an effort to enact her revenge as an actress trapped in a sexist world? Or Thomas, as a way to reveal his true desire to be dominated like Kushemski?
In the end, Ives says he realized that “I not only had characters in conflict, but I had two eras in conflict,” which makes us wonder if there isn’t a little bit of Vanda and Kushemski in all of us who watch their electrifying relationship unfold.