“Don’t we go to plays for the passions we don’t get in life?” asks playwright-director Thomas (Chris Hury) to Wanda (Allison Pistorius), a young actress auditioning for Thomas’ latest script. Given that Wanda is wearing a dog collar, black stilettos, and fishnets, audiences at Circle Theatre will anticipate a particular variety of erotic passion — sadomasochism — in the marvelous current staging of the literary sex comedy Venus in Fur. But author David Ives is less interested in S&M role-playing as cheap artistic provocation than in how that bedroom sport can be used as a metaphor for all kinds of relationship dynamics: man and woman, director and actor, playwright and source material. In Circle’s sharp, classy production, directed with surgical precision by Krista Scott, all those power plays are expertly investigated by Hury and Pistorius, who indulge in some fairly outrageous exchanges –– both verbally and physically –– but keep the whole exotic scenario utterly plausible, even relatable.
Venus in Fur unfolds in one stormy real-time afternoon, when accomplished playwright Thomas frets that he’ll never find the perfect actress for his stage adaptation of Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s infamous 1870 novella of the same name. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of prose, but it did plant S&M in the popular consciousness as a serious artistic subject (and turn Masoch’s surname into a label for a psychological phenomenon, “masochism”). Thomas is being deliberately picky while casting the central role of Vanda, a hedonistic young heiress chosen to be the dominatrix of a tortured poet. His Vanda appears unexpectedly in the form of a chatty, confident young actress named Wanda, who’s arrived late for her audition, wearing what is obviously a desperate bid for employment in a play about fetishes. Wanda insists she knows very little about Masoch’s novella, Thomas’ adaptation of it, or the dominant-submissive politics of the S&M world. But at the start of her lengthy, sometimes improvised audition — which comprises most of the show — she adapts with uncanny ease to her role as the enigmatic 19th-century Vanda. It soon becomes clear, though, that she is playing other parts, as well — that of a talented but unknown 21st-century actress eager for a splashy stage break and, more mysteriously, a sly interloper who knows an awful lot about the workings of Thomas’ obsessive mind.
Venus in Fur does indulge in the expected twisty game of “who’s on top” as Wanda’s audition progresses, but the show is ultimately more about Thomas’ need — one might say “compulsion” — to explore the idea of humiliation as seduction and, more pointedly, to define the limits of “allowing” women to hold the leash, so to speak, in a romantic relationship. With allusions to the Old Testament, Freud, Greek mythology, and pop-culture feminism, the show covers a lot of ground while keeping the focus on how vulnerable Thomas will allow himself to become.
Hury and Pistorius both give virtuoso performances in this duet of wills and libidos. He can go from deliberately abrasive to wounded, frightened, and childlike in a blink. As Wanda/Vanda, Pistorius never quite cedes her position in the driver’s seat. But it’s this masterful control that gives her character’s changes of personality an almost regal gravity. This quality is crucial to the play’s final twist, which is totally logical yet fantastical all at once.
As a script, Venus in Fur probably isn’t as clever as the author thinks it is, but when you’ve got two performers as engaged with the audience and each other as Hury and Pistorius, who cares? A good definition of “theater magic” — for this audience member, anyway — is making the ridiculous seem recognizable, even desirable. Avoiding the script’s many pitfalls of self-seriousness and playing up the show’s oddly innocent joy in its own shenanigans, director Scott and her performers make it easy for us to play voyeur while Thomas and Wanda expose themselves ruthlessly in the pursuit of control. Maintaining a firm grip on the playwright’s whipsmart dialogue and slippery themes, Hury and Pistorius neutralize and then invigorate a lot of potentially snicker-worthy moments. With audiences enthralled instead of appalled at all the faux kinkiness, Circle’s actors get the last triumphant laugh in this wicked little chamber piece.
Venus in Fur
Thru Mar 8 at Circle Theatre, 230 W 4th St, FW. $15-35. 817-877-3040.