Venus in Fur: Funny. Smart. Kinky.

By James E. Trainor III
Photos by Bob Goodfellow

Saffron Henke and Jess Prichard

Iowa City – Thomas Novachek (Jess Prichard) has spent his evening judging women, and finding them all wanting. It’s not what it sounds like, though; he’s a legitimate director. Well, I mean, it kind of is what it sounds like — he’s not really a director, he’s a playwright, but he’s taken directorial control over his own script. No one else can do it right, you see. Specifically, no one can realize his ideal of Vanda, the antagonist of Sacher-Masoch’s notorious novel Venus in Furs. Unfortunately, none of the actresses who have auditioned have that certain je ne sais quoi, and he sits in his dingy studio (a very effective set by Sean Ketchum Johnson, with lights to match) complaining over the phone to his fiance about, well, women in general.

Who should walk in at that moment, but Vanda Jordan (Saffron Henke). At first she is everything he fears: brash, uneducated, overbearing, and presumptuous enough to bring her own costume pieces. He doesn’t want her to read, wants to blow her off, but eventually he gives in, having no choice but to read Severin, Vanda’s grovelling servant, himself. She reads the role perfectly, much to his surprise, and he keeps her there late, diving deep into the play until long after he knows she has the part.

What follows is some of playwright David Ives’ funniest work, and it’s also a very intriguing journey. We laugh because we recognize Henke’s awful actress, and the juxtaposition when she’s somehow suddenly a sophisticated European lady is hilarious. But there’s also great drama, a slow striptease, as we try to figure out who this woman is and why she is here. As the two characters feel each other out, the game gets deeper and darker, and the grittier themes of the piece bare their teeth suddenly, at unexpected moments.

Venus in Fur toys with the central irony of Sacher-Masoch’s novel: Vanda, who is essentially a proto-dominatrix, is really only play-acting in a script Severin wrote. In making her into his object of worship, he’s attempting to replace her identity with his own fantasy, whether the shoe (or boot) fits or not. So who’s really in control? Director Sean Christopher Lewis explores this idea with frightening reality as he puts Prichard and Henke through the paces: the tempo is aggressive, the scenework is very engaged, and the risks the actors take are amazing. After opening up about why he wrote the piece (which Prichard does with uncomfortable intensity), Thomas lashes out, telling her where to stand, insulting and demeaning her. Twice she tries to leave, twice he begs her to come back. By this point he’s so desperate he’ll give up anything to see this thing through to the end — and we wonder if it is really about the play after all.

SPOILER WARNING: what follows goes into fairly specific detail about the plot, so if you don’t already know the ending, proceed with caution. (And if you’re bookmarking this now so you can read more after seeing the show, head here for ticket info.)

Much credit is due to Henke’s mercurial acting skills, as this play wouldn’t work without her ability to switch characters suddenly and believably. Vanda is four women (at least) at once — the brash, loud girl, who came in for an audition even though she wasn’t on the list, the lusty literary character who had Severin at her feet, Thomas’ intellectual equal who understands his motivations better than he understands them himself, and then, finally and most theatrically, a force of nature. The steps of this transformation seem to come directly out of Thomas’s love/hate relationship with women, and the inevitable conclusion makes so much sense with the little leads the playwright and director drop along the way.

Henke’s first major transformation occurs when they read the script for the first time. After creating this brash, big, character, and going through all the little gags about how silly actors are when they warm up, Henke shows us a brand new character: a subtle, refined woman, and behind her a skilled actress. But the changes don’t stop there. Though Thomas blows off how Vanda found him even though she didn’t have an appointment, and how she happens to have an entire script rather than just a few sides, he does realize something’s up when she has a copy of Venus in Furs in her bag, indicating she knows more about the source material than “like that Lou Reed song, right?” Henke and Prichard play wonderfully off each other as they discuss the merits of the book, first bonding over their familiarity with the material, then viciously arguing over its meaning. From here it’s clear Vanda knows what she’s talking about (she’s dropped the dumb girl act completely), and she’s more like the sexy and intelligent women he wanted. Closer and closer to his ideal. And yet he brutally abuses her when she disagrees, even though her insight is essential to the process.

Jess Prichard and Saffron Henke

As the transformation goes deeper, Henke’s portrayal becomes quite frightening and quite powerful. As Vanda the character begins to accept her role as the dominant party, Vanda the actress’ back story becomes more and more suspicious. Where did she come from? Why does she reveal nothing about herself? Why does she know so much about Thomas’ play and his life? Is she a stalker? A con artist? Is she here to seduce him? To kill him? Twice she holds a knife to his throat, and twice Thomas wonders about the line between fantasy and reality. Is there a “safe word” in this room?

Prichard does a great job with the complexity of Thomas as he falls head-first into this dangerous game. Though he’s quite open and wistful when it comes to the sexy bits, he’s closed off and bitter when Vanda pokes at the misogyny inherent in his work. His resistance is worn down, however, as she badgers him, psychoanalyzes him, mocks him, and eventually forces him to call his fiance and tell her he isn’t coming home. Having done this, she plays the last scene, switching roles just before Vanda gives up the game and Severin takes over. Then she ties him to a heating pipe and undergoes her final transformation.

I mentioned the dramatic striptease earlier. Throughout all of this the audience is left wondering “who is this woman, and why is she here?” Only when the moral outrage at Thomas’s treatment of women climaxes do we realize she is Venus — literally. This change is quite fascinating to watch. She ties him up, takes a powerful stance down right (the side opposite the one he kept telling her to stand in, by the way) and bellows “You dare use ME to insult ME?” The moment is so theatrical that it borders on the melodramatic, and one wonders for an instant why Henke is overacting. Then it becomes crystal clear: she’s not. She’s invoking. She brings the power of a goddess onstage, and not the cute, bubbly, Marlene-Dietrich-inspired come-do-me goddess we saw in Thomas’s play. She is a force of rage and vengeance, and the last few moments are a whirlwind of womanly wrath. This ending is a wonderful culmination of all the funniness and fear that leads up to it. It’s a testament to Ives’ genius, Lewis’ careful craft, and Henke’s ability to command the stage and make the surreal easily believable.

Venus in Fur is the perfect opener to what promises to be a very interesting season at Riverside Theatre. It runs through September 29. I encourage you to treat yourself to a daring comedy by an American master, acted, directed, and designed with passion and precision. That’s it; I just encourage you. I won’t force you. Unless you want me to…

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