S&M For the Cultured Masses

Prague Shakespeare Company’s “Venus in Fur” Gives Audience Tempting Taste of Female Domination

First Impressions is a Prague Wandering series that chronicles the early days of expatriate life for young Americans studying in Prague. The series is intended to capture the shock and awe that many foreigners experience when venturing outside their comfort zone.

 

By Nicolette Acosta

Photo by Nicolette Acosta

Jessica Boone as Vanda in “Venus in Fur.” Photo by Nicolette Acosta

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 at the New York University production that I took part in last spring.

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 protagonist of “Venus in Fur,” is one of the most exhilarating and terrifying roles I have ever performed.

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 impressed with Vanda. However, after seeing the effect of her character in the more macho 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 fantasies, 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 of “Venus in Fur.”

“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.”

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 performance scene, 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 its 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 One-on-One,” which can cost anywhere from 2,000 – 7,000 korunas (roughly between $100 – $350).

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 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 jealousy towards the talented actors who could immerse themselves in such a bold work of art.

Photo by Nicolette Acosta

“Vanda” (Boone) and “Tomas” (Roberts) question the roles of men and women in society. Photo by Nicolette Acosta

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 rather 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 are often overshadowed by her raw sexuality when it comes to the average American audience.

“I noticed how it was not the shock value or romanticism of sex that was leaving an impression, but rather the power of the female role that Vanda demanded, an interesting balance of sensuality and dominance.”

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 20s intently staring at the screen. At the deliverance of particularly forward lines they quickly glance to the stage to catch the physical action, but return focus to the playwright’s 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 has as much of 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 language 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 original novel are able to understand the plot and rhetoric along with the physical story of the show.

The Prague Post describes the show as “a knock-out interpretation.” Roberts’ and Boone’s mixture of humor, absurdity, lustfulness, and at times pathetic and sympathetic vulnerability gives more than just a good show, showing 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: “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),”  “Into the Woods,” “Fools for Love: Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” and “Macbeth.” Tickets for plays sell at 350 koruna for general admission and 200 koruna for students and seniors, while tickets for musicals go on sale at 600 koruna and 300 koruna for students and seniors.

Nicolette Acosta is in the NYU Tisch School of Performing Arts and College of Arts and Science Class of 2015. Her hometown is New York, New York.

This article was adapted from an assignment for the travel writing class at New York University in Prague.

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Categories: Fall 2014 Issue Number 2, First Impressions

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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