If Venus (or her Greek equivalent, “Hail, Aphrodite!”) were to visit you in your studio, office or garret one dark and stormy afternoon, what would she be like? Would she appear ditzy, or pushy, or charming? Or all three? What if she slowly revealed herself as an an astute researcher of your work and—more surprising—its precedents, but also sweetly and vociferously challenged every choice you’ve made? What if she were a seductress adept at both sticking to the expected script of social interaction and unexpectedly improvising? A detective who has investigated every aspect of your life—most notably, the particulars of your fiancé—and reveals her knowledge, bit by disconcerting and startling bit? A goddess—and a woman, an everywoman—wreaking vengeance on behalf of her gender?
For the character of Vanda in his play, Venus in Fur, New York playwright David Ives has conjured all this, as well as a creature even more quixotic and dangerous: a sly and deranged Aphrodite of sorts, as much Maenad as goddess, whose mission is to incite intoxication, chaos and destruction beyond that created by love, to that created by lust. First performed off-Broadway in 2010, Ives’s two-person exploration of power, pain, pleasure and gender is being performed at the Jungle Theater, under the expert direction of Joel Sass.
Here the captivating Anna Sundberg is in the formidable role of Vanda. All lace, leather, chains and punishing heels, she appears to rout her foil and victim, the playwright Thomas—gamely played by Peter Christian Hansen—from his assumptions about sex, seduction, art, language, sado-masochism, power, gender and role-playing. Sundberg’s a wonder to behold. She deftly, seamlessly moves through Vanda’s machinations, switching accents, costumes and body language like the shape-shifter her character is. Upon meeting her, Thomas doesn’t know who exactly has shown up — only that he’s frightened and loving every minute of it. S&M, whether safely consigned to a script or dangerously improvised in the studio, is his creative dream, and its apotheosis is Vanda–or rather Aphrodite.
Need it be said? Venus in Fur is not Fifty Shades of Grey. In fact, the power dynamics in Ives’s tour-de-force are never more exciting, or inciting, than when Vanda and Thomas switch genders. Detached from their expected “sexual” roles, their interactions become a sublime sort of hellfire that sears through any preconceived notions about who really wears the dog collar in the relationship—be it between lover and role-player, playwright and actress, goddess and supplicant.
There’s no real porn here – despite a smokin’ scene in which Thomas shoves a pair of thigh-high boots onto Vanda’s feet and up her legs – but rather a lot of provocation: intellectual, social, cultural. Throughout the play, Vanda and Thomas invoke this quote from The Bible’s Book of Judith: “And the Lord hath smitten him and delivered him into a woman’s hands.”
Vanda asks, “It’s pretty sexist, isn’t it?” Thomas: “I’m only quoting Sacher-Masoch’s book” [also titled “Venus in Fur” Venus im Pelz]. Vanda: “Yeah, but you included it here [in the script] on page zero like it’s the whole point.”
That’s right. In this erotic power play, nothing and no one is quite what they seem. “Hail, Aphrodite!”
Venus in Fur, written by David Ives and directed by Joel Sass, is on stage at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis February 1 through March 10. Find more information: http://jungletheater.com/venus.html
Camille LeFevre is a Twin Cities arts journalist and dance critic.
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