A man dreams of Venus, a vision of desire, wrapped in splendid furs. The ensuing conversation of passion and eroticism prompts an examination of sexual politics, from submission to dominance, in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 19th-century erotic novella, Venus in Furs. Developed from this classic work, Ensemble Theatre Company’s (ETC) upcoming production of Venus in Fur, David Ives’s play within a play, is a modern take on the constantly undulating and always tantalizing balance of power between the sexes.
Venus in Fur begins with a director, Thomas, frustrated by the exhaustive search for an actress to play the erotic temptress, Wanda von Dunayev, in his stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s story of sexual dominion. When Vanda arrives to audition, Thomas is initially unimpressed with her seeming lack of preparation. But as their interaction turns consuming, Vanda’s appropriateness for the character — her embodiment of the intricate dance of dominance, classic femininity, and the illusion of submissiveness — becomes unquestionable. The psychological link between sex and power (and how each gender is perceived by the other within that framework) is an important aspect of the underlying fantasy that Thomas attempts to express in his adaptation of Venus, and Vanda’s audition is ultimately a reading of his play that reflects this dynamic to alluring perfection.
Sacher-Masoch’s novella may have inspired the term “masochism,” but it would be a gross oversimplification to consider Ives’s play an example of female objectification. Beyond the play’s surface-level appeal of being visually titillating and comically entertaining, Venus in Fur emphasizes feminism. Vanda is savvy enough to understand the subtleties of erotic manipulation, which allows her to command power over Thomas — she comprehends the classic view of a woman’s role in a relationship but strives for equality. The deft maintenance of this balance of sensuality and intelligence keeps the stakes in Venus in Fur potent and the interactions enticing: Ives’s play is both erotic fantasy and flirtatious power struggle.
An intimate two-person show, Venus in Fur has been immensely popular on American stages in recent years (it even won a Tony Award in 2012). Ensemble’s production features Annie Abrams as Vanda and Bruce Turk as Thomas. Abrams was last seen with ETC in The Scene in 2009. Her other recent productions include The Sunshine Boys at the Ahmanson. Abrams has also appeared on television shows such as True Blood, How I Met Your Mother, The King of Queens, and Veronica Mars. Turk is a Broadway performer who has acted in productions across the United States, from the Pasadena Playhouse to Seattle Repertory Theatre and from the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park to The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. His television credits include roles on ER, Third Watch, and Numb3rs.
Directed by Andrew Barnicle, Ensemble’s production of Venus in Fur promises keen humor and intelligently rendered eroticism. Thomas and Vanda’s relationship, which Barnicle calls a “witty and unpredictable exploration of erotica and power,” may begin with Thomas under the impression that he’s in control of the situation, but Vanda’s fresh energy and fearlessness turn the tables to reflect the crux of Sacher-Masoch’s exploration of the complicated pleasures of sexual dominance and submission. Venus in Fur is a vivacious, multidimensional portrayal of perceived and established authority in desire.
Ensemble Theatre Company presents Venus in Fur Thursday, June 11-Sunday, June 28, at the New Vic Theatre (33 W. Victoria St.). For tickets and information, call (805) 965-5400 or see ensembletheatre.com.