By Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
David Ives play, “Venus in Fur” is a twisty and twisted work. Every movement, every word, peels back onion layers of the thoughts and desires of the characters in this near-classic pas de deux.
Entrée: Fictional playwright and director Thomas Novachek (Christian Conn) can’t find an actress to play Vanda for his theatrical adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs (plural in the book title only),” until Vanda (Whitney Maris Brown) storms into the room. She claims to be late for her audition. Novachek is tired and is expected to meet his fiancé for dinner, but Vanda begs for a chance to read the part. Thomas refuses to grant her the audition. She swears, cajoles and cries. Eventually, Thomas folds and they pick up their copies of the script.
In the play within the play, the Vanda (spelled with a W in the original work) von Dunayev enters the room of Severin von Kushemski at a retreat in the Swiss Alps. She returns a copy of “Faust” she found elsewhere on the property. Vanda coyly comments about a bookmark, Titian’s “Venus with a Mirror,” in which the goddess is draped in velvety, red fur. He quickly admits his fondness for the sensual and tactile pleasures of fur.
Both the play and in the play-within-the play start the same way: A woman enters the room of a lone male. Also, Vanda comes in packing a large bag with various costumes to enact scenes from the play. It starts as a joke, but escalates into something much more.
Adagio un: Severin dark desires manifest quickly. He tells of his childhood when he was whipped by an aunt on a bear skin rug, and how he fetishized the traumatic experience. Side note: the word masochism comes from the sur name of the author. There is a power play between Severin and Vanda. The two wrestle for dominance, literally and figuratively. Suddenly the power play between the two characters bleeds out into the ‘real world’ of the play. Actor and author struggle for dominance.
Adagio deux: Slowly we discover that Vanda (both the actor and the character) is more than who she appears to be.
Variations: Vanda offers some suggestions. They improvise a scene where she plays the mythical Venus from the Titian bookmark. Things start to unhinge as each character learns more about the other.
Coda: The play reaches a satisfying, if not nebulous, conclusion. Director Jesse Berger delicately choreographs the two-hander with aplomb. Doubling down on a surprise ending that audience members will love or hate (stick me in the love column).
Conn and Brown are engaging, enthralling, each possessing the charm and charisma needed to play these bigger-than-life characters. Mild spoiler ahead: It’s just as fun watching Brown’s Vanda transform from schlep to diva, as Conn’s character goes from haughty and imperious to terrified.
Scenic Designer David M. Barber places them in a gritty New York rehearsal space with flourishes of urban beauty. Barber proves that grim and gritty has its own particular elegance.
Kudos to Lighting Designer Peter West and Sound Designer Zach Moore for conjuring up a frightful storm in the middle of the O’Reilly Theater.
Come out to “Venus in Fur” and see the shiny, shiny boots of leather and the downy sins of streetlight fancies.
“Venus in Fur” runs from June 2 to June 26 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.