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A Little S&M Never Hurt Anyone

Sex, submission, (and Stephen Sondheim) in the A.C.T.'s stunning new production of Venus in Fur.

The steamy poster for the ACT's production of Venus in Fur

The ACT's stunning new production of Venus in Fur starts today.

I am sitting in a dirty chair in a ugly room on the eighth floor of a building on Grant Avenue, watching a rehearsal of the A.C.T.'s new production of David Ives's Venus in Fur. The props are worn and the sound effects mistimed. An imposing line of four folding desks, cluttered with binders and palpably exhausted directors, stand opposite the "stage" marked only by masking tape on the scuffed black tile floor. And yet I am transfixed. 

Today, previews open for the A.C.T.'s new production of David Ives's one-act whirlwind Venus in Fur, directed by Casey Stangl and starring Brenda Meaney and Henry Clarke. Venus in Fur is an unusual contemporary play. Unusual because it's relevant. The original off-Broadway run in 2010 launched breakout star Nina Arianda (who would win the Tony for the role) and “rebuilt” Wes Bentley’s career, according to the New York Times. Since its premiere, it's been performed from Singapore to Bucharest and last year was the most produced play in America. Roman Polanski even did a film adaptation

The play has only two actors. The setting is an empty rehearsal space, industrial and anonymous, decorated only with a couch and a pipe. Thomas (played by Henry Clarke) is a disgruntled playwright who has written an adaptation of the 19th-century, erotic novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (he put the M in S&M). The play begins at the end of a long day of fruitless auditions. Thomas has failed to find his leading lady.

"There are no women like this. Most women who are 24 these days sound like six-year-olds on helium. I'm all like, whatever, and he's all, so? And I go, like, whatever," Thomas complains to his cell-phone when actress Vanda (Brenda Meaney) enters, dressed in vintage BDSM gear, spewing valley-girl slang. Thomas is not optimistic, but Vanda insists on auditioning for the demure heroine of his play set in an 1870 Austrian spa for the wealthy.

In the course of one line, Vanda transforms into Wanda, the sophisticated, nineteenth-century noblewoman of Sacher-Masoch's novel. Over the rest of the play, Vanda transforms from Valley Girl to Valkyrie as she seduces Thomas, who submits to being her willing slave in a dizzying display that climaxes in a finale of thunder, kinky handcuffs, and divine intervention. 

When I talked to David Ives about the incredible success of Venus in Fur, he seemed bored by the play's good fortune. “This season, it's the most produced play in the country,” Ives said with amused indifference. 

Ives is an odd figure in contemporary drama. While other celebrity playwrights trade their literary credentials for Hollywood contracts, Ives remains temperamentally dedicated to the theatre. This is a remarkably strange decision for a dramatist. And a remarkably successful one.

Right now, Ives is working on a new collection of short comic plays for a Off-Broadway company, a Broadway show about Houdini with Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz, and—most scintillatingly—Stephen Sondheim's new musical (his first original musical since 2003). On the day I called, Ives had just sat down at the piano with Sondheim and heard the new show's music for the first time.

“But you move on to new projects," Ives said. "Venus was two years ago for me. I’m living in new work right now.” As for the rest of us, well, hopefully Venus in Fur can tide us over until then. 

Venus in Fur runs at the American Conservatory Theater (415 Geary Street) from March 19th to April 13th. 


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