With Barbie topping $1 billion at the box office, it’s obvious that the battle between the sexes is a storyline with legs—long, plastic legs. In Barbie, gender roles and rude awakenings power the proceedings. So it is with Venus in Fur, by David Ives, now playing at the McCadden Place Theatre, although the legs onstage are encased in black patent leather.
It’s true, Barbie and Venus couldn’t be farther apart in style and content. Barbie spotlights the roles of women and men in society at large; Venus in Fur is all about what happens in private. Barbie is inspired by a children’s toy; Venus has as its inspiration Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs, which inspired the term “sadomasochism.” But eternal questions about power and personal satisfaction are posed in both.
In Venus in Fur, Thomas Novachek (Mark Blanchard) is a playwright/first-time director. He’s adapted the Sacher-Masoch novel for the stage and has spent a long day auditioning actresses for the lead, Vanda. He’s on the phone complaining about the poor quality of the auditioners when a late-arriving actress, Wanda Jordan (Ekaterina “Katyusha” Melnik) rushes in, to a crack of thunder and lightning, insisting she be given a chance.
At first, Wanda seems similar to her predecessors: flighty and unprepared. But when Thomas tries to prevent her from auditioning, she gets serious, changing into a period dress, letting down her hair and taking control. Her seemingly throwaway line, “You’re a director: it’s your job to torture actors,” foreshadows an inevitable turn toward physical pain.
Wanda convinces an irritated Thomas to read with her, and the play within the play begins. Katyusha deftly shifts between Vanda and Wanda. Her heavy Russian accent sometimes obscures words and phrases, but her physical bearing and demeanor fill in most of the gaps. Blanchard also shifts, from all-powerful director and owner of the play’s lines to an awed acolyte, acknowledging the value of Wanda’s insights into a character he didn’t expect her to understand.
Nina Arianda won a 2012 Best Actress Tony Award for playing Vanda Jordan. It’s a dream role, alternately playful and cruel, and supremely glamorous. The male role is less sweeping, in part because it involves holding a script almost the entire time; Blanchard plays it with gusto but all eyes are on the woman who seems destined to bend him to her will.
Only Barbie’s playmates know what goes on behind closed doors in Barbie’s Dreamhouse—if there even are any closed doors. But onstage at Venus in Fur, the mysteries are revealed.
Venus in Fur runs through Sept. 3 at the McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place (one block north of Santa Monica Blvd.). Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm. General admission tickets are $30 and can be purchased here. The role of Thomas Novachek will be played by Jay Duncan beginning Aug. 25.