S&M for the Cultured Masses

“Don’t we go to plays for the passions we don’t get in life?”

Goose bumps coating my body under the scorching spotlight, I strode across the stage, clad in a red lace corset, matching panties, and thigh high leather boots in front of a full theater. Even if this performance is a disaster, at least I’ll get to keep the outfit, I thought to myself as I tried to calm my stage fright.

If the costume was not enough to make an impression, I was sure that the audience would remember my words. “I don’t need your respect, excuse me. I’ll take happiness. My happiness, not society’s happiness. I will love a man who pleases me, and please a man who makes me happy–but only as long as he makes me happy, not a moment longer.”

Vanda, the daring female vixen protagonist of Venus in Fur is one of the most exhilarating, rewarding, and terrifying roles I have ever had the pleasure of performing. So when I saw that it was being performed by Prague Shakespeare Company one of the most successful English-speaking theatre companies in the Czech Republic, I knew it would be a must-see show. After performing the role myself, I didn’t think it was possible to become more in impressed with Vanda, however after seeing the affect of her character in the typically male-dominated environment of the Czech Republic, I was happily proven wrong.

Written by American playwright David Ives, Venus in Fur is a two-person dark comedic play within a play that premiered in New York, off-Broadway in 2010 at the Classic Stage Company and made its on-Broadway premiere in 2011.

An adaptation of the Austrian novel Venus in Furs, written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in 1870, Venus in Fur is a clever performance that questions the roles of men and women in society while exploring sexual fantasy, the origins of sadomasochism and the existence of genuine love. It has won several awards since its premiere, including the Tony Awards for Best Lead Actress and Best Play. With as much success and admiration as the show has received in New York City, it is not a surprise that a New Yorker brought Venus in Fur across the ocean to premiere in Prague.

Jay DeYonker is an alumnus from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts who has lived and performed in Prague for over two years. He is a member of Prague Shakespeare Company as well as the assistant director for this rendition Venus in Fur.

Although the Prague Shakespeare Company does put an emphasis on the works of William Shakespeare, DeYonker said that the group is open to any shows that are daring, thought provoking, and exciting. While mostly dance and opera dominate the Czech

The Prague Shakespeare Company has some competition for staged performances in English.

The Bear, an educational traveling theatre troupe, travels across Europe aiming at young and old audiences alike, trying to teach English through performance and interactive comedy. Prague Playhouse is another successful theatre company, splitting it’s season between American musicals and straight plays, as well as offering intensive workshops to the public in Acting in English, Acting for Beginners, and Acting Once-on-One, which can cost anywhere from 2,000 kc – 7,000 kc (roughly between 100-350 USD).

The Prague Shakespeare Company, founded by Guy Roberts in early 2008, performs up to five nights a week, alternating between five shows at the Kolowrat Theatre, near the heart of Old Town in Praha 1.

Roberts not only directed, but is also is starring in Venus as the cynical and masochistic writer/director, Thomas Novachek. Starring opposite him as the audacious and alluring feminist Vanda Jordan is Jessica Boone.

As I shifted in my seat waiting for the show to begin I was excited to be able to experience the play from a very different point of view than I had previously, but within minutes of the lights coming up on stage, that excitement was mixed with admiration as well as a burning jealously towards the talented actors who could immerse themselves in such a bold work of art.

With a nearly full house, the audience split in half on either side of the rectangular room while the stage took the center lane, mere feet from the first row. A thin black screen hung from the ceiling above the audience to provide subtitles in Czech. With a loud crack of lightning silence swept the room and the audience leaned forward in their seats anticipating the shocking show they had heard so much about.

Sex is a prevailing theme in Venus in Fur, however as I observed the audience in the Kolowratsky Palac theatre, I noticed how it was not the shock value or romanticism of sex that was leaving an impression, but the power of the female role that Vanda demanded, an interesting balance of sensuality and dominance.

“Do you hear that whistle? That sound makes my nerves vibrate like tuning forks. Everything inside me wants to see you writhing under the lash. To hear you beg for mercy. To see a so-called man reduced to womanly tears.”

Vanda’s role demands high levels of power and respect, but these factors often are overshadowed by her raw sexuality when it comes to the average American audience.

Despite a sexualized pop-culture targeting Americans at young ages, sex has not become a normalized subject in the United States. And while a woman strutting the stage in lingerie is expected to turn heads and inspire excitement, for the majority of Czech theatregoers, this is no big deal.

Perhaps the subtitles hanging overhead the stage allow the audience to focus on something other than the blonde, confident, and sexy Jessica Boone as she verbally, psychologically, and physically spars with Guy Roberts in a strappy black corset that leaves little to the imagination.

But the language barrier does more good than harm, as it forces the audience to focus on the actual words and therefore the thoughts behind them. Across the stage I notice a group in their late twenties intently staring at the screen, at the deliverance of particularly forward lines they quickly glance to the stage to catch the physical action, but quickly return focus to the playwrights words being spelled out above them.

“Come on, you’re a big boy. Just think of me as Fiancée, and improvise.”

“I’ve never done this before.”

“That’s what all the girls say.”

The word play between the two characters is as much a crucial role in the seduction as the physical tension, highlighted with the cracks of lighting and the sound of a whip.

Although Czech audiences typically show their appreciation for theater performances more quietly than Americans, the cast received three standing ovations.

The company has done more than simply bring English-originated theatre to Prague. It has bridged the gap of accessibility in order to reach a much larger international audience. Because of this, audience members who have a much closer history with the author of the origin novel are able to understand the plot and rhetoric along with the physical story of the show.

The Prague Post, a local paper, describes the show as “a knock-out interpretation”. Roberts and Boone’s mixture of humor, absurdity, lustfulness, and at times pathetic and sympathetic vulnerability give more than just a good show, but give two real people that can be understood across language barriers.

If you are unable to attend one of the performances of Venus in Fur, playing until November 14, 2014, I highly recommend looking into the other shows of the Prague Shakespeare Company’s season including: Complete Works of William Shakepeare (Abridged), Into the Woods, Fools for Loe: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and Macbeth. Tickets for straight plays sell at 350 Kcz for general admission, 200 Kcz for students and seniors, while tickets for musicals go on sale at 600 Kcz, 300 Kcz for students and seniors.

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