Feminism in Disguise at Hampton Theatre Company
The Hampton Theatre Company, coming off one of its greatest successes with this fall’s production of “Clever Little Lies,” now takes on edgier and more challenging material with “Venus in Fur,” which opened last Thursday in Quogue. At first glance, this David Ives play seems to be a sadomasochistic sex comedy, but it is actually a work of feminism in disguise.
The setting of this two-character drama is an industrial rehearsal space where a playwright turned first-time director has been auditioning actresses for his new work, “Venus in Fur” (yes, this is another “play within a play”). The director/writer, Thomas, as acted by Tristan Vaughan, is pedantic and condescending, coming off like a callow, if slightly kinky, graduate student. As the play opens he is onstage alone complaining to his fiancée how the women he has been auditioning are all shallow and superficial (though the same could be said for Thomas, despite his literary pretensions). He is about to pack it in for the day, when there is a knock at the door.
Enter Vanda, a struggling actress spewing vulgarities and dressed like a prostitute in leather boots and black nylons. Thomas judges her immediately as wrong for the part — just another in a line of floozy actresses. Vanda, however, though repeatedly denied by Thomas, is determined to audition. This sets off a monologue of self-laceration that proves significant later in the play: “I’m too young, I’m too old. I’m too big, I’m too small. My résumé’s not long enough.”
She then unfurls a copy of the script, based on a 19th-century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch — from which the word masochism is derived. Where did she get this copy of the script, asks Thomas? Skirting a reply, Vanda suddenly leaps into character (also named Vanda, not so coincidentally) and nails it in an instant. She is so convincing, in fact, that Thomas decides to let her rehearse the entire play with him, which turns out to be a kind of pretentious soft-core variation of the works of the Marquis de Sade. Still, it is twisty and kinky enough to allow Vanda and Thomas to play out their game of dominance and submission to its conclusion.
Much of the humor comes from watching Vanda, superlatively played by Tina Jones, flit from vulgar-New-York-actress-Vanda into vampy-Austro-Hungarian-Empire-Vanda. Ms. Jones accomplishes this seamlessly, changing character sometimes within the same line of dialogue and keeping the audience completely off balance. As directed by Diana Marbury (herself excellent in “Clever Little Lies”), Ms. Jones gives a dynamic performance, which by the play’s conclusion has her convincingly inhabiting four or five different characters.
Sean Marbury’s set is also notable. Initially, the loft-like rehearsal space looks innocent enough, with its cushy divan and inviting coffee station. But as the lighting changes and the drama begins to darken, the space begins to look more and more like a sadomasochistic dungeon, helping to bring to life the interplay of dominance and submission.
Mr. Vaughan, too, in his portrayal of Thomas, is asked to inhabit a number of characters and sexual posturings. Mostly he succeeds, though without the dynamic breadth of Ms. Jones. This may be by design, as the play is all about the championing of Vanda and, finally (without giving too much away), the power of women.
By drama’s end, it’s not clear if the playwright is in complete thematic control of his material, as the play becomes a hall of mirrors where all human interaction is boiled down to sadomasochistic impulses. It shoots off so many ideas at once you don’t have time to notice which ones land and which don’t. One thing for sure, however, is that Mr. Ives’s work is partly a criticism of the theater world and its power dynamics, where struggling actresses (and, presumably, actors) supplicate at the feet of pompous directors who hold all the cards.
This gives this new production of “Venus in Fur” a distinct timeliness. With our culture and politics awash in sexual scandal, it’s hard to think of a more current subject matter. First staged in 2010, “Venus in Fur” was prescient in its diagnosis of a corrosive theater culture. With its many electrifying moments, this Hampton Theatre Company revival brings back the hurt at just the right moment.