Really, what’s a poor director to do? You have this great idea for a show, your own adaptation of a classic novel, which depends on finding just the right actress. You’re downtown holding auditions, and at the end of the day what do you have? Nothing! You can’t find a real woman anymore, especially a young woman. Someone under forty, for instance, who can actually pronounce “degradation.” Instead you see three dozen candidates who are too old, too young, and too stupid, who arrive with bags full of useless props, and who have no idea about what it means to be feminine. You’re fed up and frustrated. It’s time to go home. And it’s raining.
[Thunder and lightning. The lights in the room flicker. A knock on the door]
“Knock, knock, knock!”
Vanda enters. She’s a soaking mess, with an oversized bag, a battered umbrella, tossing F bombs and explaining how she was held up and missed her audition time. She claims she’s perfect for the role, but for our beleaguered director she’s only the last straw.
So begins Venus in Fur, the sensational David Ives play directly inspired by a notorious book written by Leopold Sacher-Masoch in 1870. The novel, based deeply in the author’s own fantasies and experience, was the first to connect erotic pleasure with receiving pain and humiliation. It’s what put the M into S&M. The novel is not pulp, not porn; it’s a refined literary pleasure with some forbidden content. The protagonist, a man named Gregor Kushemski, meets an aristocratic woman, Vanda von Dunayev—a Venus wearing Fur. He tells her his love of fur is innate: It’s a passion given by Nature to us all. Who doesn’t know the addictiveness of stroking a thick, soft fur? That peculiar tingle. That electricity. But as the novel progresses we learn Gregor is not only addicted to fur, but compelled to submit to the powerful and elegant woman who wears them. As a child he was punished by a regal aunt who made him kiss the birch rod she used to lash him. He never recovered; his desire to submit utterly to pain and degradation has become a ruling life passion.
The novel’s dramatic adapter, Thomas, is not that kind of man---or so he says. Remember, he’s a director; far from craving submission he likes total control (I know this guy). But he needs his Venus, and Vanda persuades him to at least give her a chance. It’s curious she says her real name is Vanda, isn’t it?
I won’t tell you more—to find out what happens you’ll have to take yourselves downtown to the place where auditions are begin held. There’s only room for about a hundred of you for each performance, so reservations are absolutely necessary. Once admitted you are in for 90 minutes of pure electricity. Vanda is just possibly the most sought after female role in America right now. There’s good reason for that-- not since Cleopatra has a character revealed so many aspects of woman’s infinite variety. My experience in holding auditions for the part did not correspond to Thomas’ frustration: there were many wonderful candidates for Venus. Sometimes my job as artistic director is so terribly difficult. But after searching hither and yon, we found Carley Cornelius, our true goddess, in Chicago. She’s coming our way and I don’t know whether to exercise directorial control or simply fall at her feet. Both, probably.
Our play now has its star, but it’s much more than a star vehicle. It’s a mystery (just who is this Vanda woman?). It’s kind of spooky too. It’s also a romantic comedy with more twists and turns than the ropes you tie your slave with. It’s a continual and surprising meditation on power exchanges between men and women. Does the one on top hold all the cards, or is it the other way around? The combination of sex and power (in truth they are often inseparable) makes for struggle, tension, lots of fun and real heat. The oscillations between the play and the play within the play produce vibrations. It’s fair to say this is the sexiest comedy of the 21st century—while never vulgar, it may bring rosy tones to your cheeks and other body parts. It stimulates the mind, body and soul. The ladies will be happy and the gentlemen will learn what it really means to worship the goddess—considerably more than you bargained for. Hail Aphrodite!