Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs is a political treatise disguised as a love story: it follows Severin von Kusiemski, a man who has been sexually and emotionally damaged by a scarring incident involving his aunt and his subsequent intellectualizing of women (for him, a man can either “be the tyrant or the slave.”) He asks Wanda von Danajew, then, to serve as his tyrant, believing that his love for her will only grow with her cruelty. Wanda, who loves Severin, decides to cure him of his sickness—let’s call it masochism, the condition that was named after Sacher-Masoch—by performing exactly as he asks her to. They have a brief, destructive, hypersexual relationship, and Severin emerges more mature and clear-headed. He concludes, finally, “That woman, as nature has created her and as man is at present educating her, is his enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he, and is his equal in education and work.”
Not very subtle, but certainly progressive for its time. Almost one hundred fifty years later, we have David Ives’ Venus in Fur. In it, playwright and director Thomas Novachek (Hugh Dancy) is auditioning the part of Wanda in his stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s book. At the end of a long day, he is confronted with Wanda (Nina Arianda), an actress who shares the name of his character and who is perfect for the part—except the part is not perfect for her. She plays the ditz for a while—“This is like based on something, right? Besides the Lou Reed song?”—but slowly reveals a profound knowledge of her part and his script.
Because Thomas seems to have ditched the feminism; instead of a call for gender equality, he sees his play as a rewriting of The Bacchae, in which “The god Dionysus comes down and reduces Pentheus the king of Thebes to a mass of quivering feminine jelly in a dress … Except here it’s not Dionysus, it’s Aphrodite.” Though he insists it is a love story of “outsized emotions,” he has really just rehashed the same misogynistic garbage that Sacher-Masoch was arguing against. In Venus in Furs, Wanda mentions the story of Dionysus and the Ox: a courtier invents a new implement of torture in which the victim is placed inside an iron ox which is pushed into a furnace. On receiving the ox, “Dionysus nodded graciously to the inventor, and to put his invention to an immediate test had him shut up in the iron ox.” The same has happened to Thomas. He is convinced that man and woman are enemies, has created a play to prove his point, and Wanda shows up to punish him with his own convictions. In the final moments of the Venus in Fur, he is tied up and crying out in slavish worship.
Mr. Ives is best known for All in the Timing, a collection of short works that are both highbrow and light: in “Words, Words, Words,” a group of chimpanzees try to write Hamlet; in “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread,” the minimalist composer is satirized for his clipped, repetitive style; and in “Variations of the Death of Trotsky,” the eponymous communist dies eight times in his hiding place in Mexico. These are funny skits but ultimately disposable.
With Venus in Fur, Mr. Ives has taken the intellectualism and entertainment that form the core of All in the Timing and produced a truly wonderful work of art. The play is cerebral and thrilling, never sacrificing one for the other. Though Mr. Dancy is not quite the actor Thomas Novachek deserves—he is too jittery, too one-note, he never quite makes the part anything but a stock neurotic writer—Ms. Arianda is phenomenal, alternating between the actress Wanda and the tyrant Wanda with impeccable comic timing. She can say of the coffee she is drinking, in her false Transatlantic accent, “I’ve haardly tasted it, but it’s excellent so faar,” and without missing a beat switch to the squeaky valley girl asking, “And that’s symbolic, right?” But as the play progresses, she transforms her giddy, youthful physicality—at one point, after reading a particularly tense scene, she screeches and pumps the air with her legs—into the goddess Aphrodite, the poised and deliberate revenger of woman. Ms. Arianda gives, without a doubt, the best female performance of the season, second only to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Willy Loman.
Venus in Fur, a fascinating, complex work, closes in three days. Buy, steal, or cheat your way into this show.