Venus in Furs
nytheatre.com review by Charles Battersby
October 1, 2005
Most folks know that the “S” in S&M comes from the Marquis DeSade, but very few seem to know that the “M” comes from Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch and his novel Venus In Furs.
Michael Scott-Price of Firebrand Theory Theatre Company has faithfully adapted the novel into a play, which tells the story of Severin (Jaime Robert Carrillo), a gent who loves to be beaten and abused by women. When Severin meets Wanda (Kim Katzberg), he tries to transform her into his perfect dominatrix, but after he hands himself over to her, Wanda turns out to be a lot crueler than Severin ever expected. The story is allegedly based on events that actually happened to Masoch, and the novel is a classic work that has rightfully earned Masoch immortality (even if he’s only known as the guy who gave us the “M”).
Scott-Price’s adaptation, perhaps, relies too heavily on text from the novel. There are numerous voiceover narrations that sound like the narrative of a first-person novel, and much of the dialogue seems to have been transcribed, unedited, from the book as well. The result is that Severin and Wanda trade longwinded speeches while patiently awaiting their turn to speak. The action onstage also slows to a crawl when the unseen narrator analyzes Severin’s thoughts (with the occasional quote from Goethe, as per Masoch’s writing style in the book).
This all shows the difference between dialogue that is meant to be read and dialogue that is meant to be spoken. What might make a fascinating novel makes a boring play.
Compounding this problem is the fact that the performances don't do much to elevate the material. Both Carrillo and Katzberg have a tendency to overplay their characters, making them overblown and implausible. The two also seem to have little romantic chemistry, leaving it up to the dialogue to convince the audience that the characters are swept up in a passionate fantasy. The voiceover narrative that pops in occasionally is delivered in a lifeless monotone.
Given the subject matter, one would expect some degree of eroticism. An adaptation of Venus In Furs needn’t be pornographic, but it should at least convey the desires felt by its characters. Unfortunately this show isn't the least bit sexy. Even the use of gratuitous toplessness in one scene fails to add much in the way of naughtiness to the proceedings.
The novel features a prologue and epilogue (cut from the show) that reveal that Severin learned his lesson from Wanda and thereafter takes the dominant roles in his relationships. This epilogue offers some valid and insightful theories on feminism, which are not present in Firebrand Theory’s adaptation.
The concept of a stage adaptation of Masoch’s most famous work is certainly a good idea, but this adaptation fails to show audiences why Venus In Furs is a classic to begin with.