Identities keep changing, along with the balance of power, in David Ives’s twisty, fascinating “Venus in Fur,’’ now at Huntington Theatre Company. Directed by Daniel Goldstein, it’s a spellbinding production that you really don’t want to miss.
What drives “Venus in Fur’’ is a psychosexual pas de deux between a playwright-director named Thomas and an actress named Vanda whose true stakes are suggested at play’s end. Before then, the two protagonists keep shifting from their real selves to scripted roles and back again. The lines start to get mighty blurry, and the matter of just what those real selves might be emerges as one of the play’s tantalizing riddles. The play is also quite funny; Ives takes time to make a few inside jokes about life in the theater.
Andrea Syglowski, as Vanda, and Chris Kipiniak, as Thomas, deliver two of the finest performances of the season. Syglowski is just terrific, start to finish. She nails the comedy, the sensuality, and the mystery of the character about as well as it’s possible to do. (I say that as one who saw Nina Arianda’s justly acclaimed, Tony-winning portrayal of Vanda on Broadway). One moment, Syglowski’s Vanda is sticking out her lower lip like a child who’s just been denied candy; the next, she is regal and commanding.
Kipiniak also shines in the more reactive role, expertly tracing Thomas’s transformation from an arrogant, condescending figure to a man far less sure of himself; far less sure of anything.
Goldstein, who helmed the Huntington production of “God of Carnage,’’ has enlisted a talented design team for “Venus in Fur,’’ and they all do stellar work: set designer Matt Saunders, costume designer Charles Schoonmaker (who handled that task in “God of Carnage’’), lighting designer M.L. Geiger (whose handiwork was seen in “Mabou Mines’ DollHouse’’), and sound designer Darron L. West.
“Venus in Fur’’ begins with a thunderclap, and the roll of thunder will be heard periodically throughout the play, as if nature itself is commenting on the action. Or maybe there are there other forces at work?
In any case, Thomas is in a sour mood when we first see him. Having decided to direct his new play, an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella “Venus in Furs,’’ he’s just spent a long, fruitless day auditioning actresses to play a central character. He’s preparing to head home to his fiancée.
Then Vanda bursts into the studio, attired in black stiletto heels and a raincoat, clutching an umbrella, and chattering away. She comes across as a complete ditz. She’s not, but it will take Thomas a while to figure that out. Vanda insists on auditioning; when she takes off the raincoat, she’s wearing a tight black leather skirt and a dog collar. “I mean, it’s basically S&M, right? The play?’’ she asks the seething playwright.
She insists on auditioning and changes into a long white dress — and into a refined accent — to play an aristocratic 19th-century woman in Thomas’s play who is named, yes, Vanda von Dunayev. Thomas reluctantly agrees to read with the actress and play a nobleman named Kushemski, who takes pleasure in being subjected to pain and who welcomes domination by Vanda von Dunayev.
A curious thing: Though she claims to have only flipped through the script on the train, the real-world Vanda seems to know it by heart. Another curious thing: Vanda seems to know an awful lot about Thomas. Bit by bit, she starts to challenge him; in particular, she calls him on his sexism. At one point Thomas speaks dismissively of “Women’s rights, yadda yadda’’; at another point he calls her an “idiot woman, idiot actress.’’ Um, not smart, Thomas. Not smart at all.