Only a masochist would miss Venus in Fur, David Ives' riff on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's S-and-M classic Venus in Furs. This fast-paced, 90-minute thrill ride celebrates the flesh while stimulating the mind.
It's a dark and stormy night as the Goodman Theatre's twisted take on gender, power, and kinkiness begins. Amid cataclysmic rumblings of thunder we meet Thomas (Rufus Collins), a playwright/director at the tail end of a punishing day. He's been trying to cast the all-important title role in his adaptation of Masoch's novel Venus in Furs, but he's been barraged by talent-free imbecile ingénues the entire audition session. Or so he rants into the phone to his fiancée, in a conversation that is all but redolent with the tormented, self-absorbed angst of a frustrated artist angry with a world that just doesn't get his art. Enter would-be-leading-lady Vanda (Amanda Drinkall) in a flustered clamor of cluelessness, disorganization, and chatterbox insistence. Never mind that auditions are over and the director is in a foul mood. She has to read for the part, Vanda insists. It'll only take a sec.
From that simple setup, director Joanie Schultz helms a masterful exploration of power, seduction, and repulsion that climaxes with a roar of supernatural (or is it?) feminism. Ives' Venus in Fur may be a two-hander, but its layers are myriad. And yet for all of the play's increasingly intense mind games of humiliation, pain, and the dominatrix-slave dynamic, Venus in Fur is bitingly hilarious.
From the start, Tom and Vanda are a fascinating duo with quicksilver, incendiary chemistry. As Vanda's audition winds on, the 1870s world of Masoch's mysterious, fur-clad mistress and her desperately subservient slave begins to bleed into the real-life 21st-century world of Vanda and Tom. The overlap is mind-bending, the theatrical equivalent of an optical illusion — blink, and what seemed inarguably one thing is another entirely. Power that initially appears to lie incontrovertibly with one person is revealed to be a fleeting fantasy. In this titillating land of role reversals and role play, the one wearing the dog collar isn't necessarily at the mercy of the one wielding the whip.
The unnerving, provocative tale is exquisitely realized by Drinkall and Collins. With legs that go for days and a mind of comparable impressiveness, Vanda is a fascinating creature both physically and intellectually. She may initially come off like a ditz, but as her audition continues, it becomes apparent that Vanda wears her slavishly eager-to-please airhead persona like a costume that can be removed in the snap of a garter belt. In Drinkall's deeply compelling performance, there's something not quite of this earth about Vanda, and that something makes her thrilling.
As for Tom, Collins plays him as a mix of artistic integrity and misogynistic ignorance, simultaneously easy to empathize with and so annoying you want to slap him. On the one hand, Tom's artistic motives are pure. He's passionate about creating a play of substance and fire, a drama that ignites passions and pays tribute to Masoch's seminal novella. On the other hand, he's utterly oblivious to the male privilege he's steeped in, and to the fact that his work is ingrained with horridly humiliating female stereotypes. As an artist, Tom is propelled by good intentions. As a man, he's, toxic with hubris.
It falls to Vanda to make Tom painfully aware of that hubris, and she does so with spectacular results. Strapped into a micro-mini, teensy black bra, and a pair of deadly sharp stilettos for much of the 90-minute production, Drinkall is a living portrait of an objectified woman, a salacious display of body parts designed to cater to the male gaze. But in Drinkall's deceptively lascivious performance, Vanda is also a mighty force to be reckoned with. Dismiss her as a superficial fantasy of fishnets and latex at your peril. And peril is precisely what lies in store for Collins. Lured into a sense of his own moral and intellectual superiority by Vanda's sex-bomb exterior, he's in for a wake-up call that resonates with the violence of an electrical storm.
That storm reverberates through scenic designer Todd Rosenthal's cavernous rehearsal space setting, a largely bare room that serves as blank slate for Vanda and Tom to fill in as they probe ever more deeply into a world of taboo and titillation. Jenny Mannis' costume design is similarly effective, a mix of fantasy and reality with a provocative twinge of supernatural magic. Brainy, sensual, and packed with tantalizing plot twists and role reversals you simply won't see coming, Schultz has paced Venus in Fur with the thrusting momentum of a train, relentlessly building toward an end-game that's terrifying and empowering. It doesn't matter if you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between a ball gag and a nipple clamp. Venus in Fur is a stimulating adventure about what lies between the ears as well as elsewhere.