Billed as darkly comic, David Ives’ Tony Award nominated play, Venus in Fur, opens at fortyfivedownstairs later this month to much anticipation. Brought to the stage by Lightning Jar Theatre, director Kirsten Von Bibra describes it as a  masterfully written and witty exposé on desire and its subversion.  

 Venus in Fur is a contemporary play that tells the story of a director/playwright who reluctantly agrees to audition an unlikely actress for the main role in his new play.  This play is based on the 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch after whom the condition of masochism was named. As the actress continues to surprise the director with her insights, the line between reality and the play begins to dissolve, thus igniting a dangerous engagement into the world of domination and submission.

Venus in Fur is Lightning Jar Theatre’s second production, following their much applauded debut, Stupid F**king Bird in February 2017. It was then that the company approached Von Bibra about directing Venus in Fur.

“As a relatively young company, their passion and commitment to staging high caliber texts was palpable, ” says Von Bibra. “They want to direct their energy towards innovative productions that honour the playwright’s intentions and engage the audience in imaginative ways.”

Clearly passionate about the work, Von Bibra describes David Ives’ text is compelling.

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“Upon opening one of his plays, you are catapulted in to a world that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. He is a master wordsmith possessing an innate appreciation of elements such as rhythm, rhetorical drive, dramatic irony, antithesis, and all things linguistic. In this play, he expands themes and narrative by switching between two worlds: contemporary New York City and 1870 Europe creating a highly theatrical experience. There is a terrific mix of humour and gravitas inviting a deeper investigation. Hard to resist.”

Ives seems to have a penchant for basing his plays on seemingly obscure and eclectic historical texts as well as linking his work, in a literary sense,  to ancient Gods.

There are many layers to this work. The word ‘Venus’ in the title conjures the classical goddess of love, evoking the notions of both power and the feminine ideal,” explains Von Bibra. “It highlights gender politics as a major theme underpinning the play where the male and female characters challenge the premise of their firmly held beliefs.”

“One has to go back in time to understand the significance of the symbol of ‘Fur’ in the title. In 1870, the novelist, writer and professor of history, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch wrote a novel called Venus in Furs (plural). It caused a scandal in its day, as it depicted the protagonist’s penchant for being whipped by women wearing fur. In many respects, it was a thinly disguised account of Sacher-Masoch’s own desire and practice. In David Ives’ play, the protagonist is a playwright who has adapted Sacher-Masoch’s novel. Thus, the themes of masochism and the master/slave relationship are pivotal to the play. The play provides an exquisite reflection upon the complexities and the ambiguities of human behaviour through both a contemporary and an historical lens.”

Venus in Fur is a play for two actors. Some directors prefer the intimacy of a small cast while others revel in the challenges of a larger one.  Von Bibra acknowledges that there are certainly pros and cons of working with large or small casts and she enjoys the challenges of the different scales of work

“Working with a small cast allows the director to be more singularly focused on the actors to fine-tune their performances and to deepen their connection to the material. However, it also means the actors have the pressure of more text to learn. I think the nature of the story and ideas dictates cast size, and for me, it is the content of the play that overrides any preference for the size of cast.”

But whatever the scale, the very nature of the rehearsal room lends itself to what Von Bibra calls, eureka moments.

“I recall Eureka moments during our intensive process of script analysis where we felt we had cracked a code in understanding motifs and their patterns embedded in the text.  One of our first observations was in response to the thunder in the play: ‘To ignite the story in the midst of a thunder/lightning storm to allude to the galvanic powers of the elements/gods above, thereby suggesting that our given circumstances are not always in our control. Destiny may play a role.  Also, to remind the audience of Nature’s presence/power which was constant in Sacher-Masoch’s novel, and a requisite of German romanticism.’ This motif expands throughout the play.”

As a director, Von Bibra is attracted to themes that expand the imagination and remind us of our humanity.

“Plays such as Helene Cixous’ The Perjured City, which is an exquisitely poetic treatment of a social justice issue about HIV contaminated blood that was knowingly distributed in Paris in the mid-1980’s causing thousands of innocent people to die. It is a modern play set in a cemetery written in the epic style of Ancient Greek tragedy with characters such as Aeschylus, Night and the Furies. Plays that possess such depth of ideas and theatrical ingenuity have always appealed.”

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“Style is quite a slippery component,” she says, “Whilst there is a formal structure to style, there is a strong leaning towards eclecticism these days where one stylistic element abuts another. When done well, these points of contrast can create new ways of looking at things, which I enjoy immensely and tend to devote more time to exploring in my own practice.”

Venus in Fur is flirty, engaging and thought provoking with intelligent humour – a work set between two worlds. It will surprise!

March 9 – 24