We are warned not to trust first appearances.
Case in point: Vanda, the ditzy and clumsy actress who has stumbled into a New York acting studio looking for an audition.
She appears a helpless fool in the manipulative hands of Thomas, the playwright and director of the play for which she is trying out. But have patience, for by evening’s end, Vanda is the straw that stirs “Venus in Fur,” David Ives’ delicious and slightly twisted comedy.
In the early moments of “Venus,” which opened Friday at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, Joel Sass’s production lurches through the awkward meeting of Vanda (Anna Sundberg) and Thomas (Peter Christian Hansen). She is an impossible bumbler and he is a slightly arrogant artiste. As they begin to read Thomas’s play in the audition, however, Sass works a seduction with this sleek and elusive reading of Ives’ meditation on role-playing, gender, sadomasochism, mythology and the flesh’s weakness. All that and a cracking good sense of deception, too.
Vanda crashes in after Thomas has despaired that he will never find the right woman for his play, “Venus in Fur,” based on a German novel of the same name, written in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
Oh, she exclaims, that’s where sadomasochism comes from? Thomas insists he has brought more to the table than a pulpy update on 19th century pornography and he sets out to prove it as the two act out.
Instantly, Vanda loses the dumb facade and grabs Thomas by his theatrical jugular. Ives evokes the spirits of Hebrew, Greek and pagan antiquity to create a Vanda myth — a goddess who will twirl Thomas around her little finger. Through the course of this dance of nerves, the gritty fantasies of S&M found in the play within the play will whipsaw the characters, and the audience’s expectations.
Sundberg and Hansen find an electricity in the shifting dynamics of power. Vanda is the choice role here and Sundberg sinks her fangs into this mercurial psyche. She pounces like a cat with a fierce edge and then coos with a coquette’s charm. Hansen displays the virile confidence that is Thomas’s fatal flaw once he is caught in the downward spiral. When he slips Vanda’s thigh-high dominatrix boots onto each of her legs, he is doomed.
Sass gives his actors permission to go rogue in search of the uncensored emotions of lust. At turns vulgar, eloquent and intellectually incisive, the production gathers speed to its bracing and unanticipated conclusion. This is wickedly good theater.