Theater Review: 'Venus in Fur' Plays with Power and Seduction at Portland Center Stage

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Venus in Fur Vanda (Ginny Myers Lee) turns the tables on Thomas (David Barlow) in Venus in Fur by David Ives. Playing through March 10 at Portland Center Stage. Photo by Patrick Weishampel.
By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
The roles of submission and dominance, of mistress (or master) and slave, are played out consensually in bedrooms and dungeons around the world each day. For an hour or two at a time people slough off life's conventions and enter into erotic agreements made safe by their limits, time and otherwise. In the world of porn and fantasy such scenarios become boundless, however, depicting the complete subjugation of one person to another, perhaps for eternity. The stories follow a sort of "porn logic," which does not resemble literary, or even soap opera logic, because of its cruelty, and highly specialized area of arousal. The idea that such a story could rise to the level of art is tested in David Ives play "Venus in Fur," which shows now at Portland Center Stage's Ellen Bye Theater. Ives' highly self-reflexive drama depicts a playwright, Thomas, adapting Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel of the same name. The novel, popularized for hipsters by the Velvet Underground, tells the story of a tormented 19th century gentleman, Severin, who convinces an aristocratic woman, Vonda von Dunajew, to enslave him. Ives embeds this foundational S&M story into his play through a reading of Thomas’s script at a highly charged, last-minute audition featuring Thomas himself, and an actress named Vonda Jackson. In Thomas and Vonda we see all of the dynamics and paradoxes of sado-masochism played out. Thomas reads the role of the masochist Severin, but, as the author and director, holds the power in the relationship. When enacting von Dunajew, however, Vonda herself becomes Thomas's ideal and enthralls him. Is all of this healthy? Well, Ives' play explores that question, too, having Vonda break off from the reading periodically to throw out questions and comments like a freshman seminar student. "So this is all about child abuse, huh?" "This is so sexist," and so on. The device is clever, but it paints the story into a corner that it escapes by somewhat dubious means. The play's drama comes from the evolving relationship of Thomas and Vonda. Through the course of the audition, their power dynamic shifts, as she becomes more and more cruel and commanding, seemingly to his delight. For much of the play this keeps the audience on its toes, wondering what is genuine and what's gamesmanship on Vonda's part. How you feel about the answer to that question, revealed at the play's end, will color your opinion of its merit. I wasn't crazy about it, but I will say the performance I attended garnered a standing ovation from half the crowd. The show's actors, Ginny Myers Lee and David Barlow, essentially play two parts each. As Vonda and Thomas, they enact slightly off-putting modern archetypes – feminine vapidity and male chauvinism. As von Dunajew and Severin, they become a modern ideal of refined 19th century repression. The latter certainly comes closer to Thomas's claim that “Venus in Fur†is not smut or porn, as Vonda keeps declaring, but is, instead, a portrait of outsized human passion rarely depicted in our staid world. Lee probably has the choicer part, as her transformations, which occur on a dime, are the more striking. Watching her perform them in the Ellen Bye Theater's close quarters feels special. Barlow depicts Thomas's rage and depression, uncomfortable as they are, quite nakedly. Like one of those bedroom or dungeon sessions mentioned above, the show unfolds as an uninterrupted encounter over nearly two hours, the twists and turns compounding one another, and the emotional stickiness ensuing. By the end, a hothouse feel accrues, as the characters make bad and worse choices – bad or worse, that is, if one judges by conventional standards. This being a story celebrating the work of von Sacher-Masoch, however, the man who put the Masoch in masochism, we should probably cut them some slack. Venus in Fur, Portland Center Stage, Ellen Bye Theater, through March 10.
Leela-Ginelle-headshot-300x225Leela Ginelle is a journalist, playwright, and columnist for PQ Monthly. Leela can be reached at leela@pqmonthly.com.