by Suzi Steffen
Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s final play of the 2016-2017 season is Venus in Fur, a play about a play, or more precisely David Ives’ 2010 play about a play that’s adapted from a 19th-century Austrian novel. The novel was inspired a real-life relationship and by Titian’s 1555 painting Venus with a Mirror.
Is that enough layers? Add in the fact that the novel Venus in Furs (Venus im Pelz, in German) was written by the man whose name inspired the term masochism – Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – and that there are references to the goddess Venus in the novel; that the character in the play is named Vanda and the character in the play-within-a-play is named Wanda (pronounced “Vanda” auf Deutsch), and add in that the David Ives, the playwright, uses the scene of an audition for the play to introduce the characters … and you start to see the complexity of it all.
Venus in Fur is a two-hander; that is, it has two actors in it. The man who plays both the director and then a character within the play he’s directing is Joseph Workman, who’s been in several OCT productions: A Christmas Carol, Stupid F@#$ing Bird, and most recently, Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play. The woman who plays Vanda/Wanda (and Venus) is Inga R. Wilson, who’s also been on the OCT main stage three times – in last season’s Silent Sky, in this season’s The Revolutionists, and in this season’s (deeply amusing) The 39 Steps.
Wilson took some time out the morning after the first preview (there’s one more preview on May 18; the play opens with a gala on May 19 and continues through June 10) to talk about what it’s like to play a woman who, er, takes charge of the situation.
Wilson didn’t want to say too much about the plot because there are some twists and turns that, she says, you have to see without knowing ahead of time. “It’s a tricky play,” she said. “Even while talking to my friends about it, how far can I go in the story without setting up preconceived notions or giving away some of the reveals?”
She can say that she wears a corset (as is clear in the PR photos) and that she has to wear what she calls spiky heels – and that Vanda is a driven human being. “When the audience meets her, she’s loud, unrefined, unpolished,” she said. “It’s raining and storming outside, and then it stops raining, and the storm comes in, and that’s Vanda.”
Or at least that’s the first layer. Vanda is an actress who has come late to an audition for the play Venus in Furs, and she pops in while director Thomas Novachek is complaining that he can’t find the perfect woman for the part of Wanda. Surely Vanda – blown-in and a bit careless – is not the right one? She convinces him to do a reading of the script, which she says she knows nothing about, with her. Things, um, progress – and part of the progression involves Vanda’s gradual dominance over Thomas just as the character in the play-within-a-play dominates, at least for a while, her own guy.
It’s raining and storming outside, and then it stops raining, and the storm comes in, and that’s Vanda. – Inga R. Wilson
And so yes, it’s partly a play about S&M, and about dominance and submission (director Craig Willis, who’s also the OCT’s artistic director, calls it “definitely PG-13”), but it’s about more than that. Wilson says that Vanda “is a really good picture of goddesses [and women] who have been changed through time to suit men’s needs.”
Yes, Wilson says, “Vanda was inpired by a person from Sacher-Masoch’s life, but reading her, it’s clear to me that she’s not a real person.” Wilson knows that because as an actor, she does her research – she read the book; she watched the 2014 Roman Polanski film that’s an adaptation of the play; she prepared for her Vanda to have some “righteous anger.”
So she can definitively say that her job is interesting. The Wanda in the novel “gets so twisted to fit what [the author is] looking for and what he needs. That’s great for a novel, but then when it starts to blur the lines of reality, it gets interesting,” she said. “Then you go one step further, and the Vandas are playing Venus when they’re improvising the scene from the book. It’s pretty crazy, the layers that David Ives wrote in there.”
Willis said that in a way, the novel was slightly ahead of its time in imagining (and then trashing) the idea of a world where men and women are equals. But, he added, that the play “suggests to me that whatever agency is given to the woman in that novel is constantly taken away from her or denied her.”
The play, since it was written and vaguely set in the 2000s, has to be different. Ives manages something different, Willis said, “By having an actress playing the character, it comments on [the novel’s issues] in a very modern way, in some ways to deconstruct that.”
Willis also said that it’s important to have actors who know how to deal with the material, and he applauded Wilson for her ability to convey both humor and subtle philosophical points. “If you didn’t have that, this play could be lopsided and dangerous,” he said. “In the hands of the wrong performers, I think it could support the cultural paradigm instead of trying to subvert it.”
Watch Wilson, Workman, Willis, and all of the designers and backstage folks subvert that paradigm:
Venus in Furs
Oregon Contemporary Theatre
194 W. Broadway
7:30 pm preview Thursday, May 18 (tickets $10-$15)
7:30 pm Friday-Saturday, May 19-June 10
2:00 pm Sunday, May 28 & June 4
Tickets $23-$35 (students with ID $15) here or 541-465-1506.