Venus in Fur opens in a sparse office. Thomas (Jeff Gilberson), a playwright making his directorial debut, laments on the phone to his fiancee about the difficulty in casting a lead actress: "There are no women like this. No sexy-slash-articulate young women with some classical training and a particle of brain in their skulls?"
Enter: Vanda (Jaiden Wirth). She is late and Thomas, exhausted, is ready to go home. "You don't want to audition with me right now," he warns. But he is intrigued. Vanda, coincidentally, is also the name of the female lead in his play. He reluctantly gives her a chance to audition. Before they begin reading lines, she strips briefly down to her underwear, intentionally giving Thomas an eyeful before changing into one of the costumes she's brought with her.
The central mission of Venus in Fur seems to be to subvert the power structure it creates. The play delights in giving power to one of its two characters, Thomas or Vanda, seeing what they do with it, then quickly taking it away. In the play within the play, the roles are initially opposite what they are in the audition: Vanda is a baroness with whom Thomas' character becomes obsessed. To win her love, he offers to submit to her fully, to become her slave.
Thomas' play is an adaptation of an 1870 German novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Thomas calls Sacher-Masoch's work "a central text of world literature." Vanda flippantly refers to it as "S&M porn." They're both right. Sacher-Masoch, more famous in death than in life, has become known as the father of sadomasochism.
Gilberson and Wirth each exist in dual roles—as actors and as the characters on the play's page. As they progress further into the reading, the two versions of themselves begin to merge. At one point, Vanda, playing the actress, takes command of Thomas, renaming the play's character after him. Thomas—confident, imperious and inflexible about interpretations of his text at the beginning of the play—begins to show cracks in his veneer as the story progresses. He begins forgetting his lines, so that Vanda has to feed them to him. Gradually, she grows more confident and he less so, to the point where she feels comfortable denouncing the work as anti-feminist.
Vanda is the central enigma of Venus in Fur. On one hand, she is constantly showing new dimensions; on the other, her obscurity is frustrating. Is she an actress, or is she something else—the goddess Aphrodite toying with Thomas? Does she want the role, or does she want to teach Thomas a lesson? At one point in the play, she teases about having a romantic partner, but it's the only time she mentions it. Thomas can't tell if she's being truthful, and neither can the audience. The play aims for nebulousness, but may have been more effective if it made Vanda a more grounded character, a real human. By imbuing her with supernatural characteristics, Vanda comes across more like a fantasy of the male playwright, David Ives, existing somewhere between a character and a plot device that happens to the more fully developed male character. These shortcomings, however, should not be attributed to Jaiden Wirth, who electrifies the stage from the moment she enters.
Overall, it's unclear what Venus in Fur is trying to say about female empowerment or male-female power dynamics. The message, if there is one, feels a bit muddled, and the uncertain nature of Vanda undermines her power as a symbol. It is, however, a stylish and gripping romantic drama full of humor and sexiness in which two talented actors deconstruct each other across two centuries.
SEE IT: Venus in Fur is at Twilight Theater Company, 7515 N Brandon Ave., 503-847-9838, twilighttheatercompany.org. 8 pm Thursday-Saturday, 3 pm Sunday, through Aug. 12. $18.