Sunday, June 12, 2016

"Venus in Fur" - Goddess in A Dog Collar

Christian Conn and Whitney Maris Brown star in
Venus in Fur" Credit Pittsburgh Public Theater

 Fur. One of the softest things imaginable. So warm and sensual.

The sting of a birch branch on one’s back. Warm yes, fiery so, but not so sensual - unless, perhaps,  you’re Leopold von Sacher-Masoch or someone who shares his abstruse inclinations.

The Austrian author wrote about his early experience on the receiving end of a session with a birch branch as a mere boy. Held down on a black fox fur-covered floor with backside exposed, he learned to appreciate the sensual qualities of the flick of rod administered by a regal aunt along with the degradation that accompanied it. The synergy between fur and pain went on to form one of his deepest sexual obsessions, one to which he lent his last name - masochism.

Later in life, Sacher-Masoch’s year-long experiences with his dominatrix mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor, were fictionalized in an 1870 novel titled "Venus in Furs," which shocked the world when first published. Attracted by the theatricality of the novel, playwright David Ives used the book as the basis a scintillating play, "Venus in Fur," which premiered at the Classic Stage Company in New York, then opened on Broadway in 2011 where it won a Tony Nomination for Best Play.

Now getting a staging at the O’Reilly Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Public Theater production bristles with intelligence, first on the part of the playwright whose genius is able to turn a complex, dark and shadowy subject into a light and frothy comedy. But beware, in between the cracks, Ives manages to let a bit of nefarious noir ooze in through the humor.

The setting for Ives’ play, performed in 90 minutes by two characters in six roles, is stage adapter, Thomas Novachek’s audition space, where, as director, he’s just been through a grueling day interviewing actresses hoping to get the female lead. Exasperated by his lack of success and dismayed by the quality of the auditions, he’s just about ready to turn out the lights and join his fiancee for dinner. Where can he find someone able to play the worldly domineering aristocrat who was able to satisfy Sacher-Masoch’s libidinous cravings for his adaptation?.

Wham! With a crack of lightning, in steps Vanda Jordan out of a storm, carrying a large bag full of theatrical props and  pleading for a try-out. At first turned off by the woman’s seemingly ordinary Thespian skills and scant resume, Thomas eventually relents under a barrage of supplications, coaxes and tears and even agrees to serve as her reader. That the woman is as voluptuous as she is persuasive also helps  push him over to her side.

As Vanda undoes her top coat, she reveals a scant leather skirt with matching boots and dog collar, a costume she presumes is in line with her notion of the play as "S and M porn."

"It’s a great love story," Thomas corrects her. To paraphrase, it’s a serious novel that’s become a central text of world literature.

Thus begins an evening of power plays as the characters see-saw back and forth between submission and mental and physical domination. The dynamic is more than a male-female battle of genders. It extends to power shifts between the roles of director and actress and sheer strength of will between the incandescent coercive actress and the lower keyed director whose metabolic thermostat seems set several degrees lower.

As Thomas, Christian Conn is no slouch dog, but a formidable adversary in their
sexual game of cat and mouse. He seems to get sucked into Vanda’s psycho-sexual vortex, but is he really the submissive here? Or is he using Vanda to satisfy his own innate dark urgings?

The entire dynamic between the two characters remains mysterious to the end. Just as we begin to think we know who’s the top and who’s the bottom, things get topsy-turvy, which is a credit to both Ives’ script and director Jesse Berger’s uncanny way of letting the cat out of the bag when there may not really be a cat to begin with.

I’ve saved the best for last, which, in this case, is Whitney Maris Brown in what I deem the best performance by an actress in the still-young Pittsburgh theater season. I was amazed by the scope and range of the "personality reconstructions" she displayed throughout the evening, ranging from ditzy, ingenue with a palpable innocence when it came to things painful but waywardly considered pleasurable to a strong, formidable woman with more than a touch of goddess attributes.

"Venus in Fur" opens with thunder and lightening. It ends with an astonishing image, one that’s as unexpected as it is poignant and distressing. It’s an odd way for a comedy to start and finish, but obviously David Ives, no ordinary playwright, is capable of exceptional things..

"Venus in Fur" is at the O’Reilly Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh through June 26. For tickets, phone 412-316-1600 or visit website


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