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‘Venus in Fur’ puts modern twist on classic S&M novella

Arts Editor

Published: Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 16:12


Spencer Davis/The Miscellany News

Shivani Dave ’15 and Jake Namaroff ’16 are the only two actors in this weekend’s production of Venus in Fur. Members of the crew say that the sparse two-person cast adds to the intrigue of the piece.

The raciness in Fifty Shades of Grey is hardly original. The 1870s did sadomasochism first with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus in Furs. In fact, the very term masochism is derived from the author’s name. But perhaps even Venus in Furs is a little passé. Now, the racy old novella has been incorporated into a kinky, modern-day comedy that explores issues of sexual roles and power in the aptly titled Venus in Fur. Unbound will present a production of the play in Room 212 of Sanders Classroom on Dec. 6 and 7 at 8 p.m., and Dec. 8 at 2 p.m.

Director Jada Graves ’14 discovered the play after seeing it and its Tony winning actress, Nina Arianda, who won the award in 2010. The smoldering play turned heads and garnered critical acclaim during its off-Broadway and Broadway runs. “And the way that it was introduced, it seemed like this very sexy, really hot show,” Graves said. “I was just like, ‘I would love to know more about it.’” She decided to produce the show at Vassar, asking Doug Greer ’14 aboard as stage manager.

Venus in Fur depicts the titillating, comic, and mysterious relationship between writer-director Thomas and actress Vanda, the only two characters. Within the play, Thomas has penned a dramatic adaptation of Venus in Furs. Vanda is auditioning for the role in Thomas’ play as the dominatrix, who also happens to be named Vanda in Venus in Furs. Venus in Fur toys with this parallelism between the contemporary duo and the pair in Sacher-Masoch’s book, while addressing issues of gender roles, sexism, and control.

Shivani Dave ’15 took on the role of Vanda not long after bumping into Greer and Graves. Greer stopped Dave, and asked her to repeat a line from the show. “And I said, ‘You guys are weird, but okay.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh what was that for?’” Dave said. She looked up the show, was intrigued, later auditioned, and got the role. “It explores gender roles in a way that I think is really fun and exciting for the audience, which I actually didn’t even know before I auditioned,” Dave said.

Dave described her character Vanda as frantic and scattered. “Every other word she says is fuck, so she’s just not all together,” Dave said. “And she comes in and creates a splash. She walks into Thomas’ life and turns it upside down. So that’s where it’s crazy and exciting...She comes in as this girl who pretends not to know anything...Then as the play progresses you realize she knows exactly what she’s talking about, and she has her own agenda.”

Greer finds the sparse, two person cast, a strength of the play. “I love shows that have few people,” Greer said. “I think you can get a lot out of character development by only having two people, because there really are switches in the show.” Still, he acknowledged the added burden; the sheer amount of lines can get in the way of the acting process.

Dave agreed on the difficulty of memorization, and also finds the constant character-switching tricky. “We go in and out of character a lot. I’m auditioning, and so when I audition we do the play within the play. And I break character a lot,” Dave said. “That’s the most difficult part—having to have two characters in mind, sometimes even three, and make that switch distinct enough that someone can notice I’m now playing a different role.”

Venus in Fur marks Dave’s first time as the lead in a show. “There’s a lot of pressure, especially because the show is just me and Jake, who plays Thomas…we really have to pull it together, but it’s exciting and I really like this character, so I think that’s what makes me more excited to do it,” Dave said. “I am really nervous and there aren’t scene breaks, so if we mess up it’s just us exposed for everyone to watch.”

Graves is no stranger either to the stresses of theater-making, and admitted experiencing more stress than she expected from the show despite the scale of its cast. But Graves continues to tackle the play with a positive attitude. “My actors, they’re perfect for the roles they are cast in,” Graves said. “And sometimes in rehearsal, they’ll bicker a little bit, and I’ll just let them do it for a couple of minutes because I feel like it completely adds to this power dynamic that’s in the play. Shivani will yell at Jake for something he said and Jake is all like, ‘I don’t understand why you’re angry at me.’ And it’s really cute actually.”

Dave’s approach to acting her part was to study her character’s interactions with Thomas, and to read up on the show and the novella Venus in Furs itself. “I just want to be inside the character for as a long as possible. And even throughout the day when I’m going in and out of rehearsals, I’m in that mindset,” Dave said. “I find myself doing and saying things that my character would say. And it’s like, ‘Woah, that’s really a Vanda thing to say.’ A little bit like method acting, which is kind of dangerous in this situation.”

Dave finds the sadomasochism in the play an interesting tool for exploring gender roles—by submission and dominance. “I think I’m more against it than when I started…because of the way it is used in this play. The way that the director/playwright, Thomas, has written this play and has written the female character in [is] a very submissive and vulnerable role that I disagree with,” Dave said. “It’s interesting with something like Fifty Shades of Grey that has come out. You could argue that it’s borderline arguing the same points against Fifty Shades of Grey.”

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