Sexuality. Identity. Gender roles. The male-female dynamic. All of those issues play out in David Ives' "Venus in Fur," in a fine Chicago-area premiere at Goodman Theatre.
But they're accessories, like the dog collar, stiletto boots and handcuffs the characters don and doff over the course of Ives' sly, satirical sex dramedy. Dress it up any way you like, "Venus in Fur" is all about power: who's on top (so to speak) in the relationship at any given time.
"Venus in Fur"★ ★ ★
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through April 13. Also 7:30 p.m. April 1 and 8. No 2 p.m. show March 22 and April 10. No 7:30 p.m. show April 6.
Running time: About 95 minutes, no intermission
Parking: $21 parking (with Goodman validation) at the Government Center Self Park at Clark and Lake streets
Rating: For adults; contains mature subject matter, sexual situations, strong language
The play-within-a-play unfolds in a no-frills, New York City rehearsal room where writer and first-time director Thomas (Broadway veteran Rufus Collins) has spent an unsuccessful day auditioning actresses for his adaptation of the 19th century erotic novella, "Venus in Furs," by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Guess what word his name supplied?
While Thomas complains on the phone to his fiancee about the lack of sexy-smart actresses suitable for the female lead, in walks rain-soaked actress Vanda (the superb Amanda Drinkall), ominously accompanied by rumbling thunder and flashing lightning courtesy of sound designer Mikhail Fiksel.
Coarse, noisy and attractive, Vanda is hours late for the audition. Yet she's well-prepared with a valise full of props and costumes, inexplicable familiarity with the script and a knack for setting lighting just-right. (Kudos to designer Keith Parham whose lighting makes Todd Rosenthal's rehearsal space more lovely.)
Vanda convinces Thomas to let her audition for the character -- coincidentally? -- named Wanda. She is a beautiful, cultured young woman who reluctantly agrees to dominate Severin, a fellow aristocrat who begs to be her slave. Reading opposite Thomas' Severin, Vanda (clearly more than she appears) is transformed. Thomas (rather less than he appears), is transfixed.
What ensues is a series of intriguing, ever-shifting power struggles pitting actress against director, mistress against slave and woman against man as Vanda and Thomas morph from their roles to themselves and back again.
Drinkall is a force of nature. Self-aware, delicately manipulative, the Chicago storefront veteran shifts seamlessly between identities in her star turn. Collins is more subtle, but no less convincing as a self-important intellectual. He's susceptible to flattery, prone to misogyny and resentful he's not as successful as he should be.
Director Joanie Schultz, herself a storefront mainstay, keeps tension high with astute, strategic staging that makes us constantly aware where real power resides.