During a darkly humorous and powerful moment in David Ives' Venus in Fur, Vanda adds insult to injury, and it's not part of the degradation Thomas romanticizes.
While reading a scene from a play within the play, Vanda (Veronica Russell), playing a 19th-century Austrian woman also named Vanda, is flailing an imaginary birch rod to whip a supplicated Thomas (Todd d'Amour), who is playing the masochist, Severin. She towers over him and rages, "Everything inside me wants to see you writhing under the lash. To hear you beg for mercy. To see a so-called man reduced to womanly tears. ... " But she decides she doesn't like the monologue and breaks character to tell Thomas, "Look, Tom. I like you. I mean, I really, really like you. But I don't think this is going to fly."
Whatever suspicious interest Thomas has in playing the role of the submissive disappears. He's proud of his play, he's sure it's perfect as it is, and he's not going to let an actress tell him otherwise.
It throws the two back into a heated battle of wits and wills. Ives's play is enticingly complicated by the overlapping power dynamics — of an actress auditioning for a director, of their who's-chasing-whom flirtation and their similarly perverse interest in Venus in Furs. Who's on top constantly changes, and sometimes, it's the person on the bottom who controls the action. The smart and often wickedly funny drama kicks off Southern Rep's regular season of offerings at the Contemporary Arts Center.
Both a work of literary merit and a seminal text about masochistic desire, Venus in Furs is a novella published in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whom masochism takes its name. In it, Severin is so smitten by Vanda that he offers to be her slave. The arrangement also is rooted in a childhood memory he has of being beaten and humiliated by strong women in his home and a dream he has in which he bows to the goddess Venus.
In Ives' play, Thomas has adapted Sacher-Masoch's story into a play and is trying to cast the role of Vanda. He is disgusted by the actresses he has seen, complaining that none are real women — instead he says he has seen a parade of dim-witted 24-year-olds who dress like prostitutes or lesbians and pepper their speech with "like" and "y'know."
Vanda (Russell) shows up and appears to fit all the cliches of the women who are not right for the part. She's late, flustered, curses like a sailor and wears an S&M-style dog collar. But she's insistent and coaxes Thomas into an audition.
She's neither as dumb nor as illiterate as she sounds, and she's not easy to push around, even though he is the director. That makes her an increasingly attractive actress for the role, and as the audition stretches on, deeper issues surface. Why is Thomas so attached to Venus in Furs? Is it just another role for Vanda, or is there more to her interest in the audition? And do any labels matter if people discover a powerful connection?
Southern Rep director Aimee Hayes chose Venus in Fur for the theater's schedule because it was one of the most successful recent plays to come out of New York. It debuted Off-Broadway in 2010 and reopened on Broadway in 2011. Nina Arianda won numerous awards for best actress in the debut, and the production was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 2010. Since its debut, the subjects of dominance and sadomasochism have become more timely.
"I'm intrigued that 50 Shades of Grey became one of the best-selling books of all time," Hayes says. "It's a fun timing thing."
She's also taking advantage of the timeliness by scheduling an after-show discussion following Friday's preview (opening night is Saturday), featuring Bella Blue, a burlesque dancer; Mimi Schippers, a professor in Tulane University's Gender & Sexuality Studies Program; and Susan Larson, longtime book reviewer for The Times-Picayune and current WWNO-FM host of The Reading Life.