Washougal Art & Music Festival

Venus in Fur: The (Play Within the) Play’s the Thing!

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The sound of dissonant strings swells as audience members file in and find seats. Folks flip through programs and sip wine. But an uneasy tension looms as the audience settles in for David Ives’s Venus in Fur, now playing at Twilight Theater.

Before I saw it Friday night, all I had heard about this play is that it was about sadism and masochism — an uninterrupted 90 minutes of good ‘ol S&M.

As if that wasn’t intimidating enough, I braced against an evening of confusing, self-indulgent writing when I read that Venus in Fur has a play within the play.

I quickly left those assumptions behind as the whirlwind began.

Ominous thunder. A divan. A despondent director/playwright. This is our austere introduction to Venus in Fur. Lights come up on Thomas Novachek, played by Jeff Giberson, on the phone with his fiancee. Thom complains about the bad actresses he’s been auditioning for his new play, who just aren’t “feminine” enough. Thom isn’t exactly what one would call “woke.” He can only conceive of women in restrictive, dehumanizing terms; they must either are be goddesses, whores, or as he put it, “dykes.”

Just as Thom is about to give up on his quest for his perfect female lead, we hear thunderclaps outside. Enter Vanda, played by Jaiden Wirth. Coincidentally, Vanda is also the name of the character that she is auditioning for. Trippy, right?

Thom’s play within the play is called Venus in Furs (plural), an adaptation of a novel by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. Sacher-Masoch’s novel inspired the term “masochism”, and centers around Severin von Kushemski. All Kushemski wants is a goddess to dominate and subjugate him. So here we have Thom, reading the part of Kushemski, and Vanda reading Vanda. This character-nesting-doll dynamic is the springboard from which we dive into the dark blend of comedy and mystery that is Venus in Fur.

In David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” the quest for an ideal female lead leads both an actress (Jaiden Wirth, left) and director (Jeff Giberson) in unexpected directions. Photo: Alicia Turvin.

In her directorial debut with Twilight, Alicia Turvin effectively plays with different levels of sitting, standing, or lying down to communicate shifts in power and status. Under her direction, the actors were clearly given room to explore physicality to communicate subtext and express intention.  

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Actress Jaiden Wirth makes many strong physical and vocal choices as Vanda. Her smaller choices get the biggest laughs, such as when she picks her nose, sneezes, or sits down in a funny way. When Wirth coolly snaps into the role of the 18th-century Vanda, her countenance takes on a powerful repose, and her voice deepens so that she is practically unrecognizable.

Giberson takes his time as Thom. In the beginning, his reserve is a ballast in the thunder storm of Vanda’s energy. But when he becomes Kushemski, Giberson shifts from the confident stoicism of a mansplaining playwright, to that of a submissive “quivering pile of feminine jelly.” Giberson is a tall man, which onstage often communicates high status, but as he transitions to Kushemski, he successfully conveys submissiveness and inferiority through his physicality.

Turvin is both set designer and director on this production. The set begins as an unbalanced tableau, with most of the furniture one side of the stage. This imbalance is striking, and dovetails nicely with the imbalance of power between Thom and Vanda at the beginning of the play. As Vanda assumes more power, she rearranges the furniture and fills in the empty space, effectively balancing both the tableau and the power dynamic.

Vanda (Jaiden Wirth, right) rearranges the furniture and the power dynamic in the office of a director and playwright (Jeff Giberson) in “Venus in Fur.” Photo: Alicia Turvin.

There are many layers to Venus in Fur which provoke questions about what this play really wants to be. On one hand it may be an argument against that pyramidic, patriarchal model of theater-making that elevates male playwrights and directors to divinity. On the other hand, maybe it’s about the culture of casting couches.

Maybe it’s just a suspenseful, sexy enigma.

Whatever it is, I promise you, it is not as intimidating as anticipated. It is actually rather straightforward in that the whole thing is a single uninterrupted scene, easy to follow and to enjoy. Twilight’s production of Venus in Fur is an entertaining exercise in theatrical (and sexual) restraint.

 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Chris is a producer/journalist/playwright based in Portland. He has produced segments for Oregon Public Broadcasting's daily talk show Think Out Loud, and episodes for the science and environment TV show Oregon Field Guide. As a reporter, his stories have been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. He has also published work in The Oregonian, Portland Mercury, Oregon ArtsWatch, Willamette Week, and Street Roots. In his spare time, he enjoys writing and producing plays and short films. He was the recipient of the James Baldwin Memorial Scholarship Fund for Playwriting at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His next short film, Wren LaVelle, has been commissioned by Portland Playhouse and will premiere in summer 2023. He recently served as artist in residence at CoHo Theater in Portland, and before that, the School of Contemporary Dance and Thought in Massachusetts. He is currently working as a writer on Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s new show The Americans.
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