Venus in Fur Theatre Review – SCR Artists Restore a Fine “Venus”

Thmoas (Graham Hamilton) meets Vanda (Jaimi Paige)

(Costa Mesa, CA) October 12, 2014 – You have to hand it to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and Richard von Krafft-Ebing for bringing male emotional emasculation into the public eye and making it “culturally mainstream.” In 1870, writer Scher-Masoch penned and published his most famous short novel, “Venus in Furs,” a tale about a gentleman falling in love with a young woman, so much so he offers to be her slave…to be dominated publicly and privately as long as she is draped in beautiful, expensive furs. Psychiatrist von Krafft-Ebing became fascinated by the author’s book, as well as von Sacher-Masoch's private sexual desires to be sexually dominated by the women in his life; it was through these exploits that von Krafft-Ebing coined the term “masochism,” which is defined (according to the playbill notes) as an individual who “in sexual feeling and thought, is controlled by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex; of being treated by this person as by a master, humiliated and abused…”.


Is it any wonder people still believe that the human race is the most “civilized” and “intelligent” species on Earth? But as Bill Cosby has said so many times in his monologues: “God has a sense of humor.”


Needless to say, sexual perversion may eventually lead to the ultimate demise of human civilization, but it makes fascinating fodder for art, especially in South Coast Repertory’s (SCR) production of David Ives’ dark comedy “Venus in Fur.” The show was a sensation on Broadway, including being nominated for a Tony award for Best Play.  But due to one major flaw in Ives’ character development of the male role, the play’s success was most likely due to the provocative nature of the subject material and the biting, witty dialogue, especially that of the female lead. Regardless, SCR’s production is still worth seeing, especially to see its stars. The electrifying performances by Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige save the play from its own defects.


The Temptation Begins


It’s a dark and stormy night at a neighborhood studio in New York City.  Theater director Thomas Novachek (Graham Hamilton) has been auditioning actresses all day and night to star in “Venus in Fur,” a stage adaption of von Sacher-Masoch’s famous novel. He complains over the phone to his fiancé that he just can’t find the right actress for the complex role of the domineering Wanda. Enter Vanda Jordan (Jaimi Page), a profane, outspoken local actress who is a few hours late for her audition appointment. After much pleading by Vanda, Thomas agrees to watch her audition for the role…and she’s frighteningly perfect. But as the audition progresses and both individuals read and perform their roles, sexual tension is created and both end up playing a battle of wills as to who is the master and who is the slave.


What prevents the dark subject matter from becoming too morbid and emotionally claustrophobic is the humor interlaced throughout the play. Ives’s dialogue in this 95 minute continuous work is extremely crisp and sharp. It’s intelligently written, clever and the double entendres throughout the play are sexually charged without it being vulgar. There were many cases that Director Casey Stangl could have gone down the cheap road by guiding her actors to more gratuitous actions on the stage. But all three relied on the power of Ives’ dialogue to intensify the moments and the wonderful chemistry between the two stars.


The Temptation Continues

That is why it is so disappointing and infuriating that Ives broke a rule that he claimed he avoided in his piece: To have the power play go back and forth consistently throughout the play until one of the characters gives and becomes submissive. The playwright indicated that the reason why he didn’t write a stage adaptation of “The Story of O” was because the main character submits on page one and he didn’t want to do that with “Venus.” The problem is he does just that with the character of Thomas, which is horribly weak and underdeveloped. From the very first time both actors are in the same scene, it is obvious from both page and stage that Thomas will submit to Vanda. This is not due to the performance of Hamilton, who actually does an expert job in intertwining likability, artistic passion and youthful callowness. But Ives’ dialogue for Thomas doesn’t show any kind of power and authority. In order to maintain the suspense of the play, both Thomas and Vanda must show some believable levels of power in order to keep people guessing as to who will win. Using cinematic characters as an example, it was as though there was a sexual showdown between Barton Fink (John Turturro from “Barton Fink”) and Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone from “Basic Instinct”)…who in turn is playing Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino in “Mighty Aphrodite”) as a disguise. It is a no-brainer: Tramell is going to win, and so is Vanda. The play is so one-sided for the female character that the lack of suspense hurts the play.


But does this deficiency mean that theater-goers should not see the production at SCR? Not at all. The highlight is Paige’s Vanda, who magically switches from her comedic persona to her dramatic role of Wanda from the “play within the play.” Her comic timing is absolutely flawless and her presence is strikingly intense, exuding the power that is needed for her character(s). Along with Stangl’s deft direction, “Venus in Fur” is a nice addition to SCR’s 2014/2015 season and an appropriate companion piece to the upcoming “Zealot” by Teresa Rebeck, which deals with domination of another, more frightening sort: the violence against women by radical Islam. With these two productions, South Coast Repertory will continue to expand its horizons as a major theatrical force in the country.       


Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.


Venus in Fur opened October 5-26 2013

South Coast Repertory: Julianne Argyros Stage

655 Town Center Drive

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

Photos by Debora Robinson


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