I recently rediscovered one of my favorite pieces of writing — a play review I wrote for class instead rather than the paper. The assignment was to write a review that explained more about the narrator than the piece itself — I tried to achieve this in a sly way, only embracing the task partway. I ended up with one of my favorite pieces of writing.
I took the liberty of editing the piece a bit — just cutting the extra flab — and I’ve decided to present it here, post-mortem.
When the final curtain fell on the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s performance of David Ives’ “Venus in Furs,” I was surprised the two-person cast was not applauded with a standing ovation. I believe, based on their performance, they deserved one. Then, as my thoughts wandered for the briefest moment I realized: Perhaps the reason the cast didn’t receive a standing ovation was because of the stiff sexual embarrassment that was rising up in the audience’s pants.
The play, based on the 1870 novella “Venus im Pelz” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, revolves around two strangers who quickly fall into a fantasy realm of sexual tension and avidity. If performed correctly, as it was at Seattle Rep that night, the power struggle on stage transcends into the muscles of every audience member, leaving them thrilled. Tiny, little thrills crashing into their bodies, their desires being taunted, performed, every sick moment and liberating secret acted out in front of them.
The script itself is a tribute to the traditional taboo of S&M. The play is meta, it plays with itself, with the medium of theater. There is a playwright, Thomas (Michael Tisdale), who has “adapted” the Sacher-Masoch novella for the stage and there is an actress, Vanda (Gilliam WIlliams), who has flow to the audition with a plan to steal the show.
And steal the show, she does. Vanda is both a dream and a nightmare. She is, at first, a crass and confident simpleton but soon transforms into a cruel madam. Williams lives in her role as a bee lives in its hive, successfully cultivating a sweet crop.
The lines of fantasy and reality are already too blurry to define concretely. The effect of this play-within-a-play lifts the audience from the reality and carries them, carefully, into a world of divulging secrets and bulging pants that Thomas and Vanda create.
And this is the genius of “Venus in Furs.” Witnessing the play is more than sitting through a drama performance, it is consenting to a shared sexual experience, an investigation of whispered suggestions and complete surrender. The novelty of the play is in the tension that simmers through the audience, the sweat that can be smelled on your neighbor’s brow. The audience is intrigued, then embarrassed, only to be enticed once again by the scenes on stage.
As Vanda so eloquently states, “Basically, it’s S&M porn.” And while the script does get dangerously and deliciously close to pornographic, the play as a whole manages to reside on a dignified level. It is an in-depth personal journey rather than a showcase of cheap and falsified acts strung together. The story explains an individual’s fight to define, accept, and achieve their own sexual cravings.
The mixture of scenes — from sexual fantasy to commonplace “reality” — tease both the audience and Thomas, who is trying to unite his wet dreams with his dry existence. A necessary and appreciated balance is created, and the audience is able to pause for breath, their brains buzzing with a mix of fear and excitement. This constant respite keeps the play from becoming too gaudy. It enables the audience to live between the scenes onstage and their own imaginations, all while sitting stunned in their seats.