'Venus in Fur' at Fells Point Corner Theatre toys with sex and power

"What do you know about my nature except what you've decided about it?" asks Vanda, her voice low and almost predatory. The question echoes throughout David Ives' dark sex-comedy "Venus in Fur" as Vanda, a young and seemingly harebrained actress, auditions for a play based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's "Venus in Furs," the 19th century pornographic novella that inspired the term "sadomasochism." But Vanda isn't really there to convince Thomas, writer/director of the play-within-a-play, to cast her—she's there to reverse the gendered power dynamic of director and actress, man and woman, and reveal to Thomas what women have been telling self-important male literary types for years: they don't really know shit about women.

"Venus in Fur," now showing at Fells Point Corner Theatre under the direction of Lynda McClary, isn't an adaptation of the book, but rather a dark and clever response to it. The show opens (after setting the mood by playing Velvet Underground's 'Venus in Furs') with Thomas (Andrew Porter) complaining about the stupid actresses he'd auditioned all day: "Most women who are 24 these days sound like 6-year-olds on helium." He says so himself that he's "insufferably pedantic," and Porter succeeds at making him as irritating as he is verbose. Vanda Jordan (Anne Shoemaker) bursts through the door, shrill, vulgar, and captivating, hours late for her audition, and manages to persuade Thomas through sheer force of will to let her read for the role of Wanda von Dunayev (the book is Austrian, so it's pronounced "Vanda" like Ive's character), the woman who agrees to enslave, dominate, and humiliate Severin von Kushemski, the lovelorn protagonist desperate to live out his repressed S&M kink and prove to Dunayev that he's worthy of being her husband.

No sooner than Thomas (begrudgingly) agrees to let her audition does Vanda dramatically cast off her ugly trench coat to reveal the lace thigh-highs, leather skirt, and corset underneath. From the moment she picks up her script and becomes Dunayev, her voice going from six-year-old on helium to refined and seductive, Thomas and the audience are disarmed. She's in control as soon as she enters the barren studio, even changing the stage lighting to her liking. Her bluntness and larger-than-life energy (think "Broad City's" Ilana Glazer) draws Thomas out of his own inhibitions and into her web of psychosexual mind games.

Shoemaker and Porter adeptly move between their characters (Vanda/Dunayev and Thomas/Kushemski, respectively), and never miss a beat in their fast-paced dialogue. Despite being an hour-45-minute-long dialogue-driven show with no scene changes and only two characters, "Venus in Fur" manages to hold audience attention by punctuating serious, sultry monologues with Vanda's quick humor and Thomas' thought-provoking revelations. Shoemaker's powerful stage presence drives the show, but a weaker actor than Porter would have been overshadowed. The dynamic of director-actress shifts back and forth, and often it's Vanda instructing Thomas in the role of Kushemski, while at the same time forcing him to reconsider the power dynamic between Dunayev and Kushemski. Is Dunayev, the mistress, really in control, or has Kushemski forced her into a position that makes her the villain no matter how you spin it?

It'd be unfair to reduce Thomas to just a pretentious misogynist—he certainly fits the description, but despite his arrogance, Thomas can be vulnerable and romantic. He reveals through his writing a desire to be liberated, although he doesn't explicitly say from what—one might assume he wants freedom from sexual gender roles, like Kushemski, but Thomas denies that he identifies with any character in his play. It's more likely that Thomas seeks an escape from his perfectly adequate relationship in exchange for something unattainable; a tryst with his imagined perfect woman, the goddess Venus.

Entwined with Vanda's increasing dominion over Thomas is the mystery of her motives and identity. She tells Thomas she skimmed the script on the train, yet she's memorized every line; she articulates intimate details about Thomas' fiancée despite never having met her; she has eerily keen insight into who Thomas is at his core, and what he desires. Vanda reveals nothing about herself as she strips Thomas bare, pushing him to become Kushemski while at the same time calling into question his understanding of his own play. The most compelling dialogue happens when Vanda picks apart the script and characters and declares them be trite and sexist, leaving Thomas to mansplain that not everything has to be about "race, class, and gender." Her indignation peaks in an illuminating monologue as she asserts that Dunayev is the victim of Kushemski's passion, that he forced her into a power play and then blames her for it. Thomas lashes out: "How can you be so good at playing her, and be so fucking stupid about her? You fucking idiot. You fucking idiot woman." Vanda quietly demands an apology, and starts to leave. When Thomas falls to his knees and begs her to stay, it cements the role reversal and permanently blurs the lines between script and reality—Vanda is the mistress, Thomas is her servant.

Vanda's motives are revealed in the last lines of the play, and going into any more detail would ruin the surprise. As for who she really is, well, you get a sense that even Ives wasn't resolved in whether she's real or mythical. But it doesn't really matter who Vanda is—she functions as the embodiment of female indignation come alive to deliver revenge.

Categorizing the show as simply a sex-comedy seems wrong. At its core, "Venus in Fur" is a shrewd, pissed-off analysis of the sex-and-power dynamic between men and women that gets its point across without taking itself too seriously.

"Venus in Fur” runs through April 3 at Fells Point Corner Theatre. For more information, visit fpct.org.

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