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Theater Review: “Venus in Fur” at Studio Theatre

David Muse’s production hurts so good

Christian Conn and Erica Sullivan in Studio Theatre's "Venus in Fur."

☆☆☆½ stars out of four

“Acting is happy agony,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, long before shows from 42nd Street to A Chorus Line had shown audiences the decidedly torturous nature of the profession. In David Ives’s Venus in Fur, currently playing at Studio Theatre, Vanda (Erica Sullivan), an actress auditioning for a part, expresses a similar sentiment: “You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism. I’m in the theater.”

Vanda arrives late just as director Thomas (Christian Conn) is wrapping up and complaining to someone on the phone about how hard it is to find “an actress who can actually pronounce the word ‘degradation’ without a tutor.” Soaking wet and brandishing a trash bag full of props as well as a dog-eared copy of Thomas’s script, the nasally voiced Vanda seems an unlikely candidate for a role in the play, an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, Venus in Furs, or as she puts it, “S&M porn.” Thomas, who bristles at this description of his “serious” love story, bristles more when he sees the rubber bondage outfit Vanda wears under her raincoat—complete with dog collar—which doesn’t exactly strike him as period appropriate.

Without revealing too many spoilers, it’s fair to say that Vanda’s character evolves during the course of the play, prompting a vivacious, suitably double-sided performance from Sullivan, who throws herself into the part with gusto even as she’s commenting from the sidelines. Her about-faces are astonishing; her one-liners are hilarious, particularly as she pulls yet another perfect prop from her mysterious, Mary Poppins-like black sack. Whether in a Victorian gown or a rubber corset, Sullivan manages to strike the right balance between poise and ridiculousness, flitting between a Fran Drescher whine and a refined European tone with ease. 

Conn is almost as strong, especially when you consider he’s essentially playing the straight (but not that straight, if you know what I mean) sidekick. “Create me!” he begs, in character as Severin. “Ruin me! Annihilate me! Excuse me—” as he breaks off to answer his preppy girlfriend’s phone call. The chemistry between the two actors is palpable, particularly when they’re acting out one of many erotic power plays. (Note to directors: Nothing creates theatrical tension quite like the sight of a knife to someone’s throat.)

For director David Muse, this is a promising hint of things to come next season. Ives’s script is all about power, and Muse’s ability to effortlessly express the back-and-forths of an S&M/actor-director relationship while simultaneously commenting on the process of art is admirable. Essentially, the play relies entirely on its two leads, both of whom deliver outstanding performances as the kooky actress and the repressed director. Blythe R.D. Quinlan’s bare-bones set works nicely as a counterpoint to the elaborate language, while the lighting, by Michael Lincoln, is remarkably effective in punctuating different scenes. The process of creating art might hurt, but this intelligent comedy actually feels surprisingly good.

Venus in Fur is at Studio Theatre through July 3; tickets ($44 to $65) available at Studio Theatre’s Web site.

*The subhead of this article originally said Venus in Furs was David Ives's production. We regret the error.

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