Fifty Shades of Grey reduced sadomasochism to handcuffs and spanking. Venus in Fur—while not devoid of dog collars and riding crops—throws into question such simple ideas of control and compliance. In David Ives' work, in a jagged but entertaining production directed by Nancy Keystone, the relationship between domination and submission is an erotic power play that revels in its ambiguous stakes.
Thomas (David Barlow) is a playwright-director who has adapted Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella about a man who dreams of being enslaved by a woman, and as Venus in Fur begins he's just endured a disastrous string of auditions. But as he calls his fiancee to snivel about those 35 inept actresses, into the dingy rehearsal room blows Vanda (Ginny Myers Lee), furiously shaking her umbrella and swearing about the perverts on the subway. Vanda may share a name with Sacher-Masoch's female character, and she may have come dressed in spike heels and leather bustier (which she'll later unzip with a very funny "Geronimo!"), but on first glance she's not so different from the 35 previous ninnies.
That quickly changes as Vanda cajoles Thomas into letting her audition for the part. Lee, with impressive control, transitions between more than two roles: In addition to modern-day Vanda, a ditzy motor mouth who describes Sacher-Masoch's book as "porn-ish," and 19th-century Vanda, a haughty aristocrat with a vaguely Continental accent, there's another Vanda who cites Greek mythology and dips into startling psychosexual insights. Lee flings herself into these rapidly shifting guises, and she's hilarious to boot—in the show's comedic highlight, Vanda improvises a scene as a German-accented Venus, slinkily lounging on the divan as she pronounces "cuddle" as "coodle" and whispers "I'll be back" as if she's Schwarzenegger. Her motives—was this audition a premeditated stunt or did it develop more organically?—remain mysterious.
Opposite this swirling tempest, Barlow falters. As his character is alternately flattered and berated, Barlow's default response is to widen his eyes and gape at Vanda like a startled puppy. Rather than fully engaging in her game, he relinquishes control almost immediately, rendering his later bursts of misogyny ("You fucking idiot woman!") a bit incongruous. Best, perhaps, to turn attention to Ives' sizzling script, a fiercer whip than E.L. James could ever hope to crack.
SEE IT: Venus in Fur is at the Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays and most Sundays, 2 pm Saturdays-Sundays, noon Thursdays through March 10. $25-$54.