‘Venus in Fur’ finds its goddess2/26/2014
On a recent stop at Chicago’s Art Institute, I spent time with the Greco-Roman antiquities. Most bare a picture of some god — or is it an actor, playing a god? Theater, with its masks and props, turns up all over these ancient wares, and such pictures came to mind as I took in Stagewest’s spirited production of “Venus in Fur.” David Ives’ drama may feature contemporary detail — Lou Reed comes up and cellphones go off — but its elements are mythic. Rollicking yet unsettling, this one-act takes us to our eternal helplessness before the goddess of love.
Ives’ title also contains another reference to “Venus in Furs” plural, an 1870 memoir of sexual slavery (and later a Velvet Underground tune written by Reed). The author, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, gave us the word “masochism.” Such double meanings abound in the rapid-fire dialog of this two-hander, and the verbal play provides evidence of Ives’ background in comic shorts. But “Venus” has been his breakthrough. In 2011 it shot from off-Broadway to Broadway, and since then no American play has been more widely produced. In France there’s already a film adaptation by Roman Polanski.
This broad appeal is due in part to the simple premise. The set’s minimal, a near-empty industrial space (the iron and brick of Wayne Kischer’s set makes an impressive trompe l’oeil). Here the author-director of a new play, derived from Sacher-Masoch, has suffered a fruitless day of auditions for Vanda, his female lead. Then, after everyone else has left, in rushes a woman, easy on the eyes, who wheedles a reading. That’s just the first of her surprises. From a seemingly bottomless bag she pulled out one prop or costume after another. And she exposes what she’s wearing beneath her raincoat: dominatrix gear with leather and thigh-highs.
Jordyn Shipley puts Vanda across with the necessary bravado. Though often hilarious, the drama explores issues of gender and power and enacts a fascinating reversal. Shipley, whether strutting, sitting or reclining to be fitted with high-heeled boots, exudes comfort with her femininity. Even in a full-length dress, she knows what she’s packing. Yet what’s best about the performance — Shipley’s debut, really — is how she meets the challenge of shifting personalities. The role requires Vanda to switch back and forth between a 21st-century ditz and a 19th-century countess, and, despite a few rushed lines in the ditz persona, she made the transformation on a dime.
Mark Maddy, as Thomas, has a less spectacular role. He’s the straight man, and he worked this into his posture. His stare was direct, his shoulders square, even when shocked or submissive. Shipley, on the contrary, was first all bobs and jitters, then ever more confident in the tilt of her head, the foxiness of her smile. The upshot was yet another winner for the city’s current season: a beauty I wouldn’t have been surprised to find on a Grecian urn. CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.