After eating my lunch, I love to stroll through downtown Hartford to refocus and reorganize my thoughts so I can tackle the rest of the afternoon in stride. Perhaps the effect of numerous creative writing courses throughout college on my brain, I can’t help but keep an eye and an ear out for interesting happenings or things on these journeys. Usually, this amounts to seeing a squirrel shimmy up a tree in Bushnell Park, or laughter erupting from outside a restaurant.
But this wasn’t the case when I had my first run-in with TheaterWork’s Venus in Fur poster on Pratt Street. If you haven’t seen it, imagine sexy legs adorned by fishnet stockings culminating with a single jet black heel on top of a man’s bare chest. To further the clearly S&M image, picture a whip gentling dangling from the woman’s left hand and a leather, steel-studded collar on the man’s throat. After nearly dropping my JoJo’s coffee, I knew I had to see this play to answer the pulsing question: WHAT IS THIS ABOUT???
Directed by Rob Ruggiero, TheaterWorks’ Interim Artistic Director, David Ives’ Venus in Fur follows Vanda, a gorgeous, although seemingly scatterbrained actress played by Liv Rooth, as she auditions for a theatric adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs with Thomas, a condescending and slightly pretentious adaptor played by David Christopher Wells (sidebar: interestingly, Rooth and Wells are engaged in real life). Before heading to the theater, here are two key parts to Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs that you should know: 1) the plot follows a man named Severin who is so infatuated with a woman, Wanda, that he asks her if he could be her slave, and 2) that the term “sadomasochism” derives from Sacher-Masoch’s name. In TheaterWorks accurate own description, the world of S&M certainly meets the world of theater head-on through Venus in Fur.
Of course, I knew none of this information when I walked to my seat that night. The first scene opened with Thomas talking to his fiancé on his phone, giving the audience some exposition. Seemingly from out of nowhere, however, burst in this blonde bombshell of a woman who went from fully clothed to leather corset, garters and panties in what felt like an instant. Attempting to audition in the S&M spirit of Thomas’ adaptation, the two then danced between reading the play to fighting with one another about sex, power and control for the rest of the performance, and sometimes not only with words.
Even if the subject matter and costuming may be out of your comfort zone, you need to see this play for Ives’ incredible manipulation of dialogue and character. Vanda, although ostensibly ditzy at the beginning of the play, enacts an entirely new personality when she begins auditioning as Wanda. Her voice changes from flighty to deep and sexy and her body and facial expressions transition from uncontrolled to exact. During multiple arguments Vanda holds with Thomas about the belittlement of women in the performance, Vanda manages to seamlessly transition and embody the heart of her argument in her next lines as Wanda. So, in the heat of fights, Vanda’s high-pitched voice transitions to the velvety, dulcet tones of Wanda as she makes her points with the actual lines of the play. As such, Thomas and Vanda’s actual feelings mix with those presented in Thomas’ constructed characters, which creates numerous complicated and rich symbolisms for the audience to dissect.
Yes, Venus in Fur will bring you out of your comfort zone and challenge your conceptions of sex and control. However, Venus in Fur will also make you laugh and inspire you to reinvestigate your opinions about fantasy and reality through an unforgettable performance with impeccable acting. If you’re one for the theater, this play is a can’t miss. And you know what,
Maybe we all could use some leather in our lives sometimes.