It is 2:02 a.m. A man sits in his study, putting twos with twos. Doublings double doubled doublings.
Binaries have long been out of fashion. Deconstruction shows that two-by-two is not how meaning’s made. But this play is built of pairs of pairs. With “Venus in Fur,” a 2010 play by David Ives going up this weekend at the Off-Broadway Theater, Simone Policano ’16 and Ari Zimmet ’16 act as Vanda and Thomas — who act as Vanda and Severin, who act as Aphrodite and Pentheus. The setup is the simplest of mises-en-abîme: An actress auditions for a director’s new play. From there, we’re off to the races. Our source texts range from the “Book of Judith” to the “Bacchae of Euripides” to the 1870 novel “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the eponymous sadomasochist.
What is this play about? Thomas says, “You might say this play is about … beware of what you wish for.” Vanda says, “Don’t fuck with a goddess is what it’s about.” This play might be about gender politics. It might be about Dionysian impulses, or Apollonian reason. It might be about performance, the self, the line between the two, art or reality, art and reality.
One could here digress into a thousand other byways of thought. We know from “Song of Songs,” Petrarch and Donne that love of Love and love of God can sound the same. Or, we venture to Faust Part Two and find Helen, another Venus in disguise. Or, in studies and visitors, there is Faust Part One, Jerome or “Paradise Regained.” The signs point outward in all directions.
What the play is about doesn’t matter. Its very structure is exuberant, joyful and fun — playful, if you will. And it is the transparent structure that lends the play meaning. When the script reaches to establish too explicit a significance, it goes flat. But when it is content to merely play with mirrors, which is most of its hour-and-change run time, the effect is heady and exhilarating.
Thomas and Vanda are just substantial enough to function as characters. The distance between Policano as herself, in the 10 minutes before dress rehearsal begins, and Policano as Vanda, in the fictional world of the play, remains wonderfully slight. She handles the character shifts — functionally, playing Vanda entails playing three roles (modern Vanda, 1870s Vanda and Aphrodite) — with fluidity and grace. Zimmet, in trying to do more, accomplishes less: his acting occasionally feels like overacting, but it is never so heavy as to drag down the fun of the production. Together, they effectively handle the script’s sustained sexual tension, although this is (perhaps surprisingly, as Policano spends upwards of an hour in her underwear) not too central a focus. And thankfully so, because in a play built around the multiplicity of possible pairs, it allows gender to act as one among many binaries.
For a play whose interest is mostly structural and abstract, it is the duty of the production to intrude as little as possible. With no scene changes, a minimum of lighting effects and no formal boundary between onstage and off, the director and producer team of Zachary Elkind ’17 and Alison Mosier-Mills ’17 have achieved this. The minimalist set, composed only of a desk and a divan, keeps the audience’s focus on the clarity and classical proportion of the script.
Nabokov, himself a master of mirrors, maintained that the pleasures of reading ought to be the pleasures of writing: that is, formal puzzles and games, not sentimental immersion. “Venus in Fur” is a very good game.