Venus in Fur dominates the stage

The Jungle delivers a rich exploration of sexuality, love, and power through the stars' stellar chemistry

Anne Sundberg's character, Vanda, in Venus in Fur arrives at an audition hours late with a clear plastic umbrella, a purse, and a big, brightly colored bag. It turns out to be a bag of wonders, full of costumes that shift the tone and even narrative of the play at every turn.

David Ives's clever look at the ever-shifting relationships between two characters tied by their desires for domination comes to life in the hands of director Joel Sass and a pair of decidedly game actors.

Sundberg and acting partner Peter Christian Hansen are more than up to the challenge of the script. They relish every twist in their characters' relationships as tables turn over and over again.

Peter Christian Hansen and Anne Sundberg create a powerful onstage chemistry
Michal Daniel
Peter Christian Hansen and Anne Sundberg create a powerful onstage chemistry

Ives uses the notorious novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch as inspiration, but distills the central relationship to its essence. The novel Venus in Fur (or Venus in Furs, according to many editions of the novel and the Velvet Underground — and who am I to argue with Lou Reed?) examines the relationship between Severin, a bored nobleman, and Vanda, a woman who can fulfill his dreams of domination.

That's not all that's in play here, however. Ives crafts a framing story around scenes from the novel: a director searching for a Vanda for his own adaptation of Venus in Fur. Thomas, the director and playwright, is a prickly character, exhausted after a full day's search for the right Vanda.

He isn't too thrilled to see an actress who is hours late and not even on the schedule, but she bullies her way into the role — perhaps that her name is also Vanda humors him, or that she has an appropriate period dress to put on over the leather gear she wears to the audition. Suddenly, the seemingly vapid woman melts away, leaving a fully realized character. Her work slowly draws him into the world of the story, where Severin's desire to be dominated leads him to agree to a contract with Vanda — one in which he will be her slave.

Ives's rich text plays out against a growing storm outside. While saying that it reflects the raging emotions inside may be a bit trite, there certainly is a battle of wits going on here. Thomas insists that he just wants to bring an interesting story and characters to the stage, while Vanda wonders if something deeper — about his relationship with women and the rest of the human race — is going on.

Sundberg pulls it all off — the various sides of Vanda the actress and then Vanda the character from the play — with incredible fluidity. Whether wearing a period dress or decked out in a pair of improbably shiny and black thigh-high boots, she is almost always in control.

Hansen is handed a tougher challenge with Thomas. The character isn't supposed to be an actor, so his Severin doesn't have the same immediate depth as Vanda's interpretation. He's a man used to order and control, but seemingly thrilled by this force of nature that has arrived in his casting room.

Ives looks not just at the everyday relationships between men and women, friends and lovers, but also the dominant and submissive vibe you can find in the theater itself. Thomas knows he has power over the actress searching for the job, and despite his general "good guy" demeanor, Thomas is more than willing to take advantage of the moment. These are the most difficult scenes for Hansen, but he performs them well.

Overall, the dynamic between the two actors is crafted admirably. They have that mysterious chemistry essential for a two-person show, especially one as steeped in the raw nature of relationships as this one. Director Sass builds on that chemistry throughout, ramping up the tension as we delve deeper and deeper into the story and the multiple psyches of our characters. The show always keeps the audience guessing as to who Vanda the actress is and what is her relationship to Thomas. In the end, we have a rich exploration of sexuality and the power of love — just in time for a leather-clad and bound Valentine's Day.

 
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