In an all-student show produced by Emily Nadel ’18 and Carter D’Angelo ’17, Miller Shor ’19 and Richard Graham ’19 performed in David Ives’ Venus in Fur on Sept. 8 and 9. Shor and Graham were a dynamic pairing, playing rich and intricate characters as if they were made for these roles.
The play begins in a New York rehearsal studio lit by phosphorescent lights and furnished with nothing but a cream divan and a desk strewn with headshots of various women. Thomas Novachek (Richard Graham ’19), a screenwriter simply dressed with hair held back in a pony tail, stands at his desk complaining about women in theater. Thomas has spent the day searching for the perfect lead for his play, and adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs. His words are interrupted by peals of thunder and the atmosphere begins to hum with anticipation.
Then she arrives. Wrapped in a long rain coat, fresh off the subway, Vanda Jordan (Miller Shor ’19) bursts into the studio. Vanda is immediately overflowing with confidence, and intent on auditioning for the role of Wanda. She removes her coat to reveal a tight black outfit not unlike that of a dominatrix, complete with studded dog collar and high heels. The original novel Venus in Furs is what coined the term “masochism.”
Vanda will take on many qualities throughout the play, but submissive is not one of them. While appearing flighty, claiming to have barely studied the tattered script she procures from her oversized bag, she launches forward with a sense of assurance that Thomas cannot resist. These first few exchanges show that both characters are steadfast in their beliefs, and loathe to admit defeat.
Graham, described the dialogue between Thomas and Vanda as a “complete rollercoaster.” He pointed out that Thomas is a foil to Vanda, and that their relationship is the central focus of the show. “It’s easy to empathize with both of the characters,” he said, because their complexities and flaws make them very human. Still, both of them take actions that are hard to forgive.
Thomas clearly villainizes the woman in his play and blames her for being coerced. Vanda calls him out for this, and repeatedly pushes against his portrayal of women. She also subverts their initial power dynamic by putting herself in positions of control. This is most dramatic in the last scene of the play, in which Thomas wears Vanda’s dog collar, arms tied to a pole, legs splayed in front of him. Vanda stands above, arms on her hips, and forces Thomas to “hail Aphrodite”.  When the room fades to black, what are we supposed to learn? In an effort to make sense of this myself, I spoke to Nadel, the director of the play.
Nadel claimed that “this show, at its core, is about a woman taking up space in the world.” Vanda is a woman with “agency,” Nadel continued, adding that “we don’t get a lot of those in theater.” Not only that, but it is also unusual for sexism to be refuted on stage.
Throughout the play, Vanda is not afraid to call Thomas out for the misogyny in his play, and in the ways he treats her. This forces Thomas to confront his own behavior, and for the audience to acknowledge his sexism, both subtle and blatant.
This play is a helpful tool for unpacking the sexism embedded in our society, our relationships and our minds. It does this by urging us to acknowledge our reactions—to pinpoint what moments surprised us, and what challenged or supported our assumptions. Venus in Fur is a “complicated story that makes you feel really conflicted about your reaction to it,” Graham said. Yet the story invites us audience to acknowledge our reactions, and to confront our biases.
Nadel described how some people were surprised by the image of Thomas tied up at the end of the play, and may have found this harder to palate than if Vanda were in his place. To Nadel, that kind of response is representative of our “societal comfort with women being subjugated.” Subjugation, she said, is “not just a woman being tied up to a pole,” or the physical acts we can easily identify as oppressive. Rather, subjugation “looks like an entire way of interacting.”
Meant to provoke dialogue, Venus in Fur cannot be contained in a single storyline or a grand, all-loose-ends-tied conclusion. At the end of the play, it seems that nothing was resolved, even if power ends in the hands of a goddess. Purposefully strewn throughout the play are seeds of doubt, so that the audience is not supposed to know if Vanda is truly Venus, a divine being sent from above to spite Thomas for his evil-doings against woman.
Venus in Fur gives the audience the responsibility to decide what is true and what is false and to grapple with the question: why is that my assumption about these two characters? Why is that my reaction, and what does that say about my biases? This sense of inner-conflict is just part of the play-watching experience, and how Venus in Fur helps us to process sexism and gender roles in the world around us.