“Haven’t you always wanted to belong to a ‘Thong of the Month Club,’” asks costume designer Charles “Chip” Schoonmaker as we set out on an afternoon of research for the Huntington’s upcoming production of David Ives’ “spooky sex comedy” Venus in Fur. Clearly it’s going to be one of those NSFW days. Costume design always begins with practical questions about the characters in the play: age, class, sexuality, weather, time period are all elements that have to be interrogated. Even so, it’s not every day that one gets to ride along with a whip-smart man as he explores dramatic questions about boots and bustiers, riding crops and paddles. Funny and provocative, like the play itself, Chip is clearly the man for this job.
We start for the famously sketchy Eros Boutique in the South End. While walking, we talk about Vanda, the mysterious woman at the center of Venus in Fur. In the play, Vanda is a desperate actress finagling an audition with author/director Thomas for the role of “Vanda” the object of worship in the play-within-the-play and the novel. (David Ives is a master of metatheatre.) She transforms from modern to Victorian, from comic to erotic, from vulnerable to powerful and back again. Chip’s first concern is actually the actress,
“You know, I don’t know her yet, so I’m not sure what will look right on her. So today is very preliminary.” When we get to Eros, we learn it has closed and been replaced by a home furnishing store whose chalkboard sign exhorts passersby to “Cozy up your home for fall!” Chip sighs, “Oooh, another nesting store. I guess the gayborhood is no longer the gayborhood.”
Our next stop is La Perla, a beautifully appointed Italian lingerie store on Boylston Street in Back Bay that is all clean lines and black lacy lingerie. Chip goes immediately to a $900 corset. Examining it he informs me, “It has boning. As every corset should.” The clerk informs us that this particular style comes with pasties. Looking around the store we find a display consisting of leather whip, gloves, and mask, and we realize this is why Eros closed. Who needs to go to a dank, second-floor shop off the beaten path when you can go to a clean, well-lit store located right on the Boston Common for all of your domination needs? The extreme has gone mainstream.
The last stop on our tour is Agent Provacateur on Newbury Street. The decor in this shop is lush, romantic, and colorful. Making note of the great variety of style and color, Chip remarks, “Nothing in the script says her bra has to be black, but when you get into color it becomes something else. It might look French burlesque.” The clerk explains that, “each piece has its own personality but the person who wears it is 50% of the equation.” With that, we are back where we started, pondering what might work for a real actress, or as Chip puts it, “What might look sexy on one body can look trashy on another.” Venus in Fur is a play that subtly investigates the kinds of stories we write on women’s bodies; trashy, sexy, funny, or all three, Ives wants us to finally ask, who do you think you are looking at?
Venus in Fur Costume Design Sketches by Charles Schoonmaker