You're prepped for the plot twists well in advance, the structure is cleverly symmetrical, and its satire operates at multiple levels. Add in the fact that it's directed and acted flawlessly, and you have an evening of theatre that can be highly recommended, occasional longueurs not withstanding.
The title of "Venus in Fur" comes from the autobiographical 1870 novel "Venus in Furs" by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Inspired by the author's subservient relationship with his mistress Baroness Fanny Pistor, the book so accurately portrayed their relationship that psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined the term "Masochism" to describe sexual submission in his groundbreaking "Psychopathia Sexualis." In the English-speaking world, that's still Sacher-Masoch's chief claim to fame--which is a pity, as he was actually a prolific author, philosopher, and early crusader against anti-Semitism.
As Ives's play opens, it's a dark and stormy night in Manhattan--brought to vivid life by the strikingly realistic lights and sound of Seth Jackson and Rusty Wandall, respectively. Thomas (Jay Stratton), who is directing his own stage adaptation of "Venus in Furs," is on the phone in his rented loft office venting to his fiancée about the impossibility of casting the role of the femme fatale Wanda von Dunajew. Finding an actress of the right age, with the right look, and an understanding of the outsized emotions common in late-19th century literature is proving impossible.
He's about to bag it for the night when Vanda (Sarah Nedwek) bursts through the door. She's blond, brassy, and frazzled after fighting the storm and the public transportation system. She's also determined to read for the role of Wanda, having come equipped with a leather skirt, sexy black underwear, a bag full of costumes and props, and a remarkably complete knowledge of Thomas's script. As the audition progresses, it becomes apparent that there's more to the motivations of both Vanda and Thomas than meets the eye.
If you've seen Ives's other work, especially his celebrated collection of one-acts, "All in the Timing," you won't be surprised to learn that "Venus in Fur" plays with the sense of reality of both the audience and the lead characters, with neatly choreographed shifts in power and perspective. It includes satirical jabs at both theatrical conventions and its own source material, and even strays into supernatural territory in the denouement. More than that I must not say for fear of spoiling some of the jokes.
It's impossible to heap too much praise on the performances of Mr. Stratton and Ms. Nedwek, who artfully dance the dance of domination prepared for them by Mr. Ives's words and director Seth Gordon's elegant staging. Ms. Nedwek's swings between the brassy Vanda and the eerily seductive Wanda are utterly credible, as is her final transformation at the end. The gradual shift in Mr. Stratton's character is equally believable. They also do the most steamy "kinky boots" scene you're ever likely to see outside of an adult video. Both of them are going to be strong contenders for my St. Louis Theatre Circle nomination pool this year, I suspect.
Jason Coale's rectangular set, with audience seated opposite each other on the long sides, has the potential to pose some real sight-line issues, especially given the two vertical poles (essential to the action at one point) that support the skylight at one end. Mr. Gordon's blocking neatly avoids them all, though, and does so without giving the impression that the actors are in any way being constrained by the set. All movement is motivated by characters and clarifies their relationship.
"Venus is Fur" is not without its issues, the principal one being that it feels like a one-act that has been stretched out to the length of most commercial films so that it doesn't need a companion piece. It's so well written, though, and is performed with so much polish that I view this as a minor drawback. It certainly doesn't prevent me from strongly recommending that you see it. Be advised, however, that (as you may have already guessed) this is a show that contains "adult subject matter", so leave the kids at home.
"Venus in Fur" continues in the Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center through March 24. For more information: repstl.org.