June 13, 2011

PLAYING TO THE GODS: Last week I saw Venus in Fur, at the Studio Theater through July 10. Basic story: Pompous playwright/director who thinks nobody really feels passion anymore is auditioning actresses for the role of Wanda in his adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel (i.e. the one masochism is named for). A blowsy New Yorkeress stumbles across his transom in hooker heels, too late for her audition (which isn’t on the schedule anyway), but insists on reading for him. She is more than she appears! An erotic game of cat-and-other-cat ensues as power shifts from director to actress and each one struggles for the upper hand–or are they really fighting to be the one who submits?

So far so cliched, really. The whole “topping from the bottom” power-shift dynamic seems really played to me at this point. It’s so often presented as sexy and edgy and challenging when it’s really a rejection of the idea of genuine submission, suffering, or unwanted self-knowledge. Four things raise Venus in Fur–by the same guy who wrote that Spinoza play I loved so much–above the old joke about the masochist who says “Beat me!” and the sadist who says “No!”

1. It’s very funny! And it doesn’t rely on faux shock or spray-on sexiness. The laughs allow the audience to relax enough that the genuine danger can sneak up on us.

2. Studio found two superb actors. Christian Conn is convincing as the playwright, whose shallowness hides hidden depths of his own, and Erica Sullivan is just terrific as the actress. She gnaws the scenery with aplomb! I loved watching her.

3. The power dynamics do come to a resolution, and it’s not one which simply affirms the usual American preference for individuality, self-control, and self-acceptance.

4. This play made me think about the gods in a slightly new light. It suggests, or at least it suggested to me!, that genuine submission can only be submission to divinity, for two reasons. First, with any human-all-too-human beloved or master, there’s a moment when it becomes obvious that their judgment is no more intrinsically or universally reliable than mine. There’s a sort of “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” moment–when O ditches Rene for Sir Stephen, for example, giving the lie to the personae all three are pretending to embody. No merely human woman is going to know this playwright thoroughly enough to devote herself completely to his education. Actual humans make mistakes, say dumb things, miss their cues, fail to suss us out when we wish they would, and have their own agendas which are often pettier than the agendas we project onto them.

And then, too, any mortal beloved will be conquered by death. Death can in turn be conquered to some extent by art–this is one of the subtler themes of the play, surfacing now and then like a gilt thread in a big dark tapestry–but for real mastery you would need a real immortal.

Anyway I do recommend the play if it sounds at all interesting to you; it’s very well done and I feel validated in my decision to make David Ives a playwright I watch for.


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