Gainesville’s Hippodrome Theatre opened David Ives’ saucy and risqué adaptation of “Venus im Peltz,” a sensual 1870 novella by Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The play opened Off-Broadway in 2010 where it ran for six weeks. After opened on Broadway in late 2011, it soon became the talk of New York theatre goers, due both to the fiery performance of Nina Arianda, who won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Actress, and the skillfully crafted script, which garnered a Tony nomination for Best Play.
A word or two about playwright David Ives is in order. Although his name is not a household word, he has been successful in a number of ways. His most popular book of plays “All in the Timing,” that debuted in 1993, has had a number of North Florida productions, and is a popular choice for high school and college productions. Ives adapted Mark Twain’s “Is He Dead?” which has had two recent successful productions in this area. Most recently Jacksonville audiences enjoyed the musical “White Christmas” at the Alhambra Theatre, for which Ives co-authored the book.
“Venus in Fur” takes place in a small rented New York rehearsal space created by Scenic Designer Kent Barrett, with exposed brick walls and a steam radiator in the background. Furnishings are limited to a large writing table with a couple of chairs, a metal shelf set, and a red chaise lounge. The night is dark and stormy and thunder claps frequently fill the air.
Thomas (the always brilliant Tim Altmeyer) is a playwright who has written a script based on Sacher-Masoch’s work, and he intends to produce and direct it. He has been holding auditions for a leading lady in this two person play, and has seen some 35 very unqualified and very untalented females. He is calling his fiancée, Stacy, telling her he is on his way home when suddenly a very attractive thirtyish woman bursts through the door, wanting to audition. He refuses; it’s late, he’s tired, he’s sure she’s tired. But the brassy and sassy Vanda (Lauren Nordvic, in an intoxicating, polished tour de force performance) isn’t about to accept his refusal.. She begs, pleads, cajoles, and demands; he has to let her read at least a part of the script. Thomas finally capitulates to the mercurial manipulations of this wannabe leading lady and finds himself reading the male lead’s role.
And so we now an European nobleman who is seeking a mistress who will accept him as her unworthy slave and a Countess who is willing to fulfill his desires for degradation at her hands. The two actors discuss their motivations for what they are doing as they experiment with the scenes of this play within a play, each at times alternating in assuming the male or female role, and moving between past and present. It is mesmerizing to see Vanda become a dominatrix while Thomas becomes abjectly submissive.
Vonda has brought clothes and some other props with her for the audition, and Ms. Nordvig’s costume design by Marilyn Wall reflects bondage fetishism with, among other things, a black leather skirt and corset, a dog collar, and very long boots with very high heels.
“Venus in Fur” has adult language and themes, as you might expect from a work based on erotic fiction, but it incorporates much humor as well. The Hipp’s version is very entertaining and very well acted under the direction of Hippodrome Artistic Director Lauren Caldwell. It is a thought-provoking piece that does require that you pay attention as an audience member.
It is well worth the effort to drive the ninety minutes to downtown Gainesville from Jacksonville to experience the quality that the Hippodrome has consistently put on its very intimate stage for the past forty years. “Venus in Fur” will be on stage until Feb 3.