The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
By Helen Schultz, Philadelphia Theatre Company
Most first days on the job do not include attending a super fancy opening night of one of the sexiest contemporary plays in recent years. Luckily for us interns at Philadelphia Theatre Company, this kind of thing is de rigeur. We’ve got one of the best summer jobs on earth: we get to work on theater that’s thought-provoking, controversial, and often doused with a lot of humor and romantic for good measure. VENUS IN FUR is all of these things. One of the most exciting things about a play like VENUS IN FUR is sitting in an audience who are along for the rollercoaster ride and just as shocked by each turn of events as the characters themselves. And, although those of us who are already familiar with the play know what’s coming next, it still makes us jump a little in our seats when the play hits its boiling point.
From left to right, Mark Alhadeff and Jenni Putney in Philadelphia Theatre Company's VENUS IN FUR. Photo courtesy of Frank Wojciechowski.
VENUS IN FUR tells the story of a playwright/director named Thomas (Alhadeff) who’s trying to cast the impossible role: that of Vanda, protagonist of his adaptation of the steamy novella Venus in Fur (fun fact: the term masochism comes from this tome: it was coined using the name of the author, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch). Vanda needs to be both ladylike and brutal; both manor-born and completely and totally forward-thinking with it comes to all things down and dirty. Enter Vanda (Putney), the wacky actress who just happens to share the same name as the role she’s auditioning for. She’s nothing like what Thomas has imagined for the role (first off, she shows up in costume, decked out in full leather and a matching dog collar), but as Vanda begins to read, he starts to realize that she’s perfect for the role. But there’s something to be said for a woman who can play the ultimate dominatrix with such authenticity: is Vanda just a ditsy actress? Or is she someone (or something) different altogether? As reality and fiction get more and more blurred, we’re not quite sure who’s auditioning whom anymore.
As a literary intern at PTC, a lot of the questions that I’m asking on a day-to-day basis are that of interpretation. I’m reading plays and thinking about them from lots of different angles: what does this motif represent? Who does this character stand in for? What does this play mean? In that sense, VENUS IN FUR is a dramaturg’s dream: it’s a play all about interpreting plays! But while we are watching two characters grabble in an intellectual cage-match over the reading of the text (is this the ultimate love story? Is this straight-up S&M porn? More Pride and Prejudice? Or something a lot more like 50 Shades of Grey’s great-great grandma?), we’re also watching one character interpret the other completely wrongly… to both hilarious and chilling effects. VENUS IN FUR is about how we interpret literature. But it’s also about how we interpret others, and how these misinterpretations can undermine and eventually destroy us.