Loud, crackling thunderclaps vibrate through the theater as the curtain rises on the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Venus in Fur.” The fearsome, unsettling thunder, delivered with little warning, silenced the audience and became a symbol of power and nature for this play, which is a study in power dynamics and sexual authority.
With 22 productions in regional theaters, “Venus in Fur,” written by American playwright David Ives, is currently experiencing a surge in popularity, according to Huntington Theatre Company’s Alex Fetchko. The play, first performed in 2010, has received a lot of interest due to its provocative subject matter, similar to that in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2005) and “50 Shades of Grey” (2011). “Venus in Fur,” based on the 1870 novella “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, explores BDSM (bondage/discipline, domination/submission, sadism/masochism), sexual desire and degradation.
Thomas (Chris Kipiniak), the protagonist of “Venus in Fur,” is a troubled writer-director who composes a play within the play, bemoans the ineptitude of young actresses, whom he deems unworthy of playing his heroine Vanda (Andrea Syglowski). Amid his complaining, a young, mysterious woman strides into his theatre and gives the audition of a lifetime, identifying herself only by the name of the character she wishes to portray. What follows is an intense battle between Thomas and “Vanda” – both for control of the audition and, eventually, for control over one another.
Performed in a single 90-minute act, the play’s central challenge is creating a reasonable pace. The tension between Thomas and Vanda builds steadily to a crescendo, while leaving time to appreciate the play’s reflective moments. Director David Goldstein’s production achieves this delicate balance with neat discipline, rationing moments of outright passion to build anticipation.
The production’s set design, too, is simplistic yet effective. A few red rows of theater seats placed opposite a nearly bare mock stage suggests a tiny, backroom theatre illuminated by exposed lighting equipment. The windows are darkened, covered by newspapers and a crumpled black curtain. It appears makeshift and informal – far from the elegant, even extravagant, sets often featured in Huntington Theatre Company productions. The set echoes the dark grittiness and keen sense of reality at the heart of the play. Best of all, the unassuming setting does not distract from the complexity of the lines or the excellence of the acting.
Regrettably, the costumes are mussed but appear more sloppy than artistic. For example, the white dress that Vanda wears for the audition is overly plain and a bit tattered – a missed opportunity to use a more elaborate 19th century costume.
In one of her first roles after graduating from Juilliard, Syglowski shines as Vanda, the mistress of “Venus in Fur.” She believably transforms from an apparently insecure budding actress at the start of the play to a woman to be reckoned with by the end. Her deft timing and sardonic portrayal matches the wry and clever humor of Ives’ lines, with only a few jokes swallowed by poor delivery. For his part, Kipiniak matches her satisfactorily, and the chemistry between the two is intense.
“Venus in Fur” is an incredible, electric performance that will keep you on the edge of your seat until its unforgettable finale. However, it is not all raunchy fun – the production also delves into deep-seated issues of gender roles and sexism, leaving viewers with much to think about even after leaving the theater. Labeled as “for very mature audiences only” by the Huntington Theatre Company website, the performance is certainly provocative – but for prepared audience members, it is well worth a trip into the city.
Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 617-266-0800.