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Monday, March 25, 2019

The Fur Horizon

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: A few years ago, I was hired to write promotional copy for Albany’s Capital Repertory Company (known now in our buzzword-intensive era as TheREP). Most of the pieces were specific to shows that mightn’t mean much to you, but I’m hoping you’ll enjoy the interview I did with David Ives.


IT’S A CASTING DIRECTOR’S NIGHTMARE. You’re closing up shop after an exhausting day of auditioning actors, good and bad, and you’d just as soon not hear another word of the play – at least for the rest of the night. In David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” it’s a playwright named Thomas who’s just about to wrap up an audition day when an oddly-garbed actress barges in, wet from the rain.

David Ives | Photo by Jennifer S. Altman
The setup seems a million miles from the short novel that inspired the play, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs. “It’s a serious novel. It’s a central text of world literature,” says Thomas, to which the actress Vanda replies, “Oh, I thought from the play it had to be porn. Anyway, you don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism. I’m in the theater.”

“The book is dull,” says David Ives. “Very dull. But famous.” It is, in fact, the book that bestowed its author’s name upon the willful pursuit of pain: masochism. It tells a story-within-a-story as its unnamed narrator reads the confessions of a friend who describes a volatile, provocative romance.

But that’s not where Ives got started with the project. “I had this terrible idea,” he says, “which was to turn The Story of O into a play. It’s a really terrible idea because it could never possibly work in any way.” Another classic of pain-and-subjugation literature, The Story of O was published pseudononymously in 1954 and garnered both literary awards and obscenity charges.

“Luckily for me, the rights weren’t available, so I didn’t have to go through the agony of doing that. But since I was thinking along those lines, I happened to re-read Venus in Furs and I thought it would make a great play because the relationship is so dynamic and so complicated.”

At the heart of the story is the self-described supersensualist, Severin, pursuing a relationship with an exotic stranger who lives upstairs, a relationship grounded in subjugation – the suggestion of which initially horrifies the woman.

“I took the book and turned it into a play for four actors,” Ives continues, “set in the book’s period, nothing terribly fancy, and I showed it to Walter Bobbie, a friend of mine who ultimately directed ‘Venus in Fur.’ He said, ‘I don’t think this works. It’s too literal and I don’t know what it has to do with today. I don’t think this is it.’ So I took that advice and I went away and a couple of months later – I couldn’t let go of those characters – I turned it into the play as we know it in about nine days.”

Ives is best known for “All in the Timing,” an evening of one-act comedies, which holds a record, during the 1995-96 season, as the most-performed play in the country after Shakespeare productions.

Other plays of his include “New Jerusalem,” which won a Hull-Warriner Award, “Polish Joke,” “The School for Lies” (adapted from Moliere’s “The Misanthrope”), “Is He Dead?” (adapted from Mark Twain’s only play), the book for the musical “White Christmas,” and several translations of new and classic works.

For his final version of “Venus in Fur,” how did Ives come up with the idea of shifting the action from 19th-century Europe to a 21st-century Manhattan audition room? He pauses. Was it an unexplainable inspiration?

Everything is unexplainable inspiration,” he says with a laugh. “The world is unexplainable inspiration. We have doorknobs and paper clips – where do these things come from?”

An actor’s career depends on those few minutes in the audition. It’s a high-pressure environment that can bring out panic and foolishness in the otherwise self-controlled. “They bring along props!” the character Thomas complains. “Whole sacks full of costumes.”

Naturally, the late-arriving Vanda has done just that. Yet what she pulls from her battered shopping bag will turn out to be game-changing.

“I showed the play to Brian Kulick, who runs Classic Stage Company,” says Ives. “I had translated a Yasmina Reza play for him and had also done a play there about Spinoza. We had a reading of ‘Venus in Fur’ and he loved it. He offered to do the play and put it into the next season and we started looking for actors. It took us six months because it was very hard to find two actors who had all the necessary qualifications – which is to say, for each to be able to be fundamentally two different people: contemporary, and for the characters in the play-within-the-play. Believe it or not, there are not many actors who can swing between those poles very easily. There were plenty of actors who wanted to do it, but not many actors who could.”

The play was such a hit at the small, Off-Broadway theater that it quickly migrated to Broadway, opening in late 2011 and running for nearly 200 performances to unanimous critical acclaim.

In its journey from book to stage, “Venus in Fur” lost its plural, “mostly,” explains Ives, “because I think ‘fur’ sounds softer and sexier than ‘furs,’ but such things are all subjective. Also, one says someone is wearing ‘fur’ these days, not ‘furs,’ so it sounded more contemporary.” And the way be puts it almost implies that there could be more reasons still.

Which fits the topsy-turvy nature of the play, as Thomas and Vanda enact characters from a seemingly timeless era. Thomas confesses that he loves “the size of these people’s emotions. Nobody has emotions this size anymore. Outsized emotions. Operatic emotions. ... Nobody’s overcome by passion like this, or goes through this kind of rage.”

But how much of himself has the reserved Thomas put into his script? Vanda coyly asks him, “So is it you?”

“Why do people always think a playwright has to be the people he writes about?” Thomas replies.

“Because,” says Vanda, “playwrights do that shit all the time.”

It’s both a power struggle and a guessing game as the audition plays out. Despite your best predictions, you’re sure to be surprised.

– Capital Rep season brochure, 16 March 2013

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