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VENUS WITH FUR, seduction without sex at Cleveland Play House

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

A psychiatrist, who is credited with naming the act of sadomasochism, stated, “I feel justified in calling this sexual anomaly “Masochism,” because the author Sacher-Masoch frequently made this perversion, which up to his time was quite unknown to the scientific world as such, the substratum of his writing.”   Yes, this is the same Leopold Sacher-Masoch who is the author of VENUS IN FURS, which is the subject of David Ives VENUS IN FUR, now in production at the Cleveland Play House.

The play within a play centers on Thomas Novachek, a newbie playwright and director, who has adapted Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 book into a script and his attempts to cast the role of Vanda.  His tryouts have been a disaster as one overacting or clueless woman after another has wasted his time.  As he is packing to leave the door opens and in bursts a blonde fireball named Vanda Jordan.  Yes, Vanda.  (Hmm, first coincidence.)

She is harried, disheveled and carries a large cotton bag.  She begs to let her read for the role.  She lets loose a tirade of swear words, seems to take over the tryouts and he falls victim to her machinations.  (Second coincidence.)

She proposes to read Dunayev [Vanda] to his Severin von Kushemski.  As soon as she starts, she transforms into the story’s Vanda, complete with perfect accent.  As the reading continues, she displays uncany understanding of the author’s intent as well as facts about his personal and love life that astound him.  (Third coincidence.)  And, from her bag produces costume after costume that perfectly fit the script’s needs.  (Fourth coincidence.

She states, “basically it’s S&M porn.”  He responds, “VENUS IN FURS is a serious novel.  It’s a great love story.”  How has she developed such a complete understanding of a script she was just given to read?  (Fifth coincidence.)

Eventually, the actress establishes total dominance over the writer, teasing, seducing, having him grovel at her feet, change her shoes, and even allowing her to tie him to a pole.  He becomes her play toy.  Seduction takes places without a kiss.  Without bodies even touching.

Ives has a great touch with extended comedy and he knows how to pull out all the sexual stops, short of acting them out.  Though, after a while, the game playing becomes a bit overdone, the audience seemed spellbound.

Questions abound.  Since Vanda, in the play within the play, is often compared to Venus, and Thomas’s personal life seems to follow some of the play’s plot, is the evasive Vanda really Venus come to life?  How does Vanda know so much about Thomas and his fiancée?  Is the gamesmanship real or is meant to be a parallel to the original Sacher-Masoch story?  What are Ives’ real thoughts of male-female domination?

VENUS IN FUR opened off-Broadway in 2011, moved to Broadway in 2012 and received two Tony Award nominations.  Nina Arianda won the best actress  award that year for her performance as Vanda.

Roman Polanski made a French film version of the play in late 2012.

CPH’s production, under the focused eye of new Artistic Director Laura Kepley, grabs and holds the audience’s attention.  Staging the script in a runway theatre  design, with the audience on both sides of the stage, aids in creating the intimacy needed for this type of production.  Kepley wisely made sure the actors continued to move positions to insure their lines were heard on both sides of the stage, and opened the actors up so that their facial expressions could be seen.

Her approach worked well as evidenced by the lack of coughing and wiggling, and the rapt attention interspersed with laughter, and a few sighs which could have been fantasy lust.

The lighting and special rain effects aided in creating reality, a much needed component.

Vanessa Wasche is delightfully sultry as the evasive Vanda.  She has a wonderful touch with comedy, uses her facial and physical beauty to create a seductive and wise character.  It is obvious that she had little trouble convincing the real director to cast her in the role.  (BTW….be sure to read Kepley’s “Art of the Audition” in the program to gain an understanding of the casting process.)

Handsome Michael Brusasco makes Thomas Novachek his.  He doesn’t portray the role, he becomes Novachek.  He completely succeeds as the seducer and the seduced.  A young woman was overheard saying to her acquaintance as they exited the theatre, “that guy should be playing Christian in the movie version of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY.”

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   VENUS IN FUR is good kinky fun.  It will send many home to a night of fantasy.  Be aware, that if you are the kind of theatre-goer who likes clear endings to your plays that wrap up the action and makes the author’s meaning clear, you’ll probably be frustrate with VENUS IN FUR. 

VENUS IN FUR, which is being performed in the Second Stage in the Allen Theatre complex, has been extended due to strong ticket sales beyond the original November 24th announced closing date. For tickets and information call 216-241-6000 or go to