With Venus in Fur, director Joanie Schultz graphically brings the world of sado-masochism to the Goodman’s mainstage. David Ives’ whip smart and bitingly funny story is a play-within-a-play centered around a young female actor auditioning for an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Fur. The book scandalized the world with its graphic depiction of a consensual master/slave sexual relationship (and ensured Sacher-Masoch immortality through the newly coined term “masochism").
Schultz recently sat down with Chicago during previews for a chat about professional dominatrices, power struggles, and Venus in Fur’s unabashed eroticism.
S and M plays a central role in Venus in Fur. How did you make sure you had the particulars of that brand of kink accurate?
We had a professional dominatrix, Vera (LaMarr) spend some time with us, talking about how submission and domination really works. She was this petite, soft-spoken woman, and no, she didn’t show up in her gear. She went through a lot of interesting archetypes, talked about why people do this, what they get out of it. How much she loved latex. [And] where is the best place to whip somebody.
How do you make choreographed sexual scenes look spontaneous and erotic instead of mechanical and pre-planned, which they are?
Well, you have to make sure you don’t include all the weird foibles that real-life sex has for one thing. Fight choreographer David Woolley did most of the work on those scenes. Initially I brought him in to do all the violence. But he was incredibly helpful with the sex as well. The key thing is that everyone has to feel safe, like in fight choreography. You have to know where the other person’s going, and completely trust them, but at the same time, you also have to make it feel and look dangerous and exciting.
All this sado-masochism in the play is obviously about sexuality and sex, but it’s also about much larger themes, yes?
There’s a lot this play has to say about gender and power struggles in relationships. I think even more than S and M, we’re looking at the power struggle in relationships here. And the gender roles people are slotted into on stage. The power, who has it, [and how] it keeps shifting. Something that’s really interesting to me about the play is how these people change each other. How doing this play-within-the-play changes them. He undergoes a complete transformation.
Can you tell who has been reacting the most intensely to the play? Which demographic it’s playing to most strongly?
David Ives said he thought the demographic would be like 23-year-old men. But after performances, the people he kept hearing from was senior citizen women. We did an invited dress for college students, and they seemed to love it. But so do our matinee audiences. I think it’s a great date night play in that it’s funny and sexy and will definitely give you something to talk about.
Venus in Fur runs through April 13. For tickets, go to goodmantheatre.org