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Venus in Fur is a completely hilarious, slightly sexy, and utterly brilliant play that can be enjoyed as a ripping farce filled with brilliant dialog and the bravura performances of its two actors, or as a rather dark meditation on power and control.  I opted for a little bit of both – comedy and psychoanalysis, and came away quite breathless.  Quite a feat, really, but it really is that good.

I mused afterward, wondering if I had any superlatives left that could describe the perfection of this piece. Fortunately, a voice from the Studio Theatre offered one: scrumtrilescence.  Exactly.

The play begins with the end of a long day casting for the lead actress of a play based on the book, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.  The playwright (Thomas, played with world-weary intellectual insouciance by Christian Conn) – or adapter, as he is keen to stress – is on the phone with his wife describing the failure of any available contemporary actress to fulfill his vision of a woman both strong and sexy, young and powerful, with the diction and bearing able to pull off the complex role he has envisioned.

His call is interrupted by the loud and vulgar entrance of a rain-soaked, late, and unwelcome applicant for the role, Vanda (played with impeccable physical comedy and comedic timing by Erica Sullivan).  Vanda is the epitome of the vain, vacuous, under-educated, under-trained, and unsuitable actresses that Thomas has subjected himself to with his casting call.  He struggles to brush off the brash and pertinacious young actress and leave for home, but something about Vanda gives him pause.  There’s always something…

Venus in Furs (the book within the play) is about a man (the narrator) who is given a manuscript (the Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man) by its author (Severin) to explain the cruelty of women and contextualize his abusive treatment of his beautiful servant.  In the book, Severin meets the woman of his dreams, Vanda, and gives himself over to her as her servant, to be beaten and humiliated.  The book described a particular relationship between partners so vividly that psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing would forever enter the term “masochism” into psychiatry and popular culture (in Psychopathia Sexualis, 1886 – also “sadism” from the works of the Marquis de Sade).

Thomas relents and gives Vanda the chance to read the part.  The banter is priceless and reminiscent of Howard Hawks as the two characters dive into and out of their play-within-a-play-within-a-manuscript-within-a-book roles like playful seals. They argue about everything – the line readings, the nature of the play – is it porn or a love story? – with rapid-fire digressions on life and love and relationships and the stage. These arguments are made even more absurd by the visual of Vanda, slipping in and out of character while wearing a corset, garters, lace underwear, high heels, and a dog collar.

Sullivan is a wonder to watch as Vanda, at turns sexy, vulnerable, rash, brash, annoying, intriguing, and commanding. Her way with a zinger is a wonder to behold and her supple presence – both as a character and physically – makes her mesmerizing to watch.  Conn holds his own in a role destined to be overshadowed, asserting his authority, his impatience, his intelligence like a whip to contain Vanda and keep her moving in the right direction.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that these dynamics shift, hard, and fast throughout the intermission-less 90 or so minutes of the play.  I was left whiplashed, breathless from laughter, and awed by the audacity of playwright for addressing its themes in such a light-hearted way.  I can’t go much further than that without ruining the essential delights of watching this play – and, besides, Vanda’s character does a far better job of skewering the prejudices of both Sacher-Masoch and the majority of men than I could in this essay.

As I said, you could walk away thinking Venus in Furs was a Hawks-ian screwball comedy with a kinky edge, or that it is a darkly comic and engrossing exploration of power, sexuality, and love.  I say, grab your love or a lover and get ready to savor an experience like no other.

Shiny Boots of Pleather: Venus in Fur by David Ives, Studio Theatre, Directed by David Muse, starring Christian Conn and Erica Sullivan , May 25-July 3