Where to start with David Ives' twisting, tantalizing and tawdry dark comedy? This is the kind of work that delights and surprises in the moment, yet following the event you begin to look past the intoxicating veneer to unravel the underlying puzzle. And you wonder: Is there any soul beneath the heaving bodice? Or is it all just a carefully constructed fantasy of leather collars and kinky boots?
In Venus and Fur, which is receiving its Chicago premiere at the Goodman Theatre, Ives has many provocative things to say about gender, dominance, desire and the evolution of the relationship between man and woman -- particularly in the bedroom. Using a mostly obscure 19-century erotic novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (whose surname was the inspiration for the term "masochism") as the entry point for exploring these topics, we're challenged to disrobe and examine sexual tropes -- including what they say about society as a whole.
Director Joanie Schultz has assembled a perfectly matched pair to bring this cheeky two-hander, which proved a hit on Broadway in 2012, to life. Amanda Drinkall, a ravishing local actress who constantly surprises with her seemingly unlimited number of colors and textures, has landed a breakout role that perfectly showcases her talents. As Vanda, the adorably scatterbrained actress who bursts into Thomas's audition room, Drinkall wins us over with a goofball exterior that slowly and shockingly strips away to reveal a much more complex fascination. Rufus Collins, as the dog-headed playwright, producer and director of this play-within-a-play, protests that his work, which is based on the Sacher-Masoch novel, isn't anything more than a study in two passionate and intriguing people. While Vanda, the eager auditionee, scrutinizes his motives, she revels in the reading.
Ultimately, the climax of this taut one act isn't whether Vanda gets the part, but if the part can handle Vanda.
Without giving too much away, the evening evolves into a daring -- and, eventually, dangerous -- game of power play, where motives and emotions are tested and questioned. The final electrifying moments may seem over-the-top, but to me felt just right for a play that probes passions derived from Greek mythology.
Yes, this is a play that leaves you wanting more. After being pulled in and manipulated, you suddenly find yourself completely submissive to the outcomes -- which aren't what you expected. But the delight in getting there is certainly worth the price.
"Venus in Fur" plays through April 13 at the Goodman Theatre. More info here.