By Michelle Trauring
The struggle in staging “Venus in Fur” lives in the back of actor Tina Jones’s mind.
With every gesture she makes, every word she speaks and every emotion she feels, she knows: this is play will only live for one night.
One night of kink, one night of power, one night of dark, strange, erotic suspense.
One night of art.
It is just the sort of play that fits right into the JDTLab series, according to director Josh Gladstone, which is all about passion and inspiring artists to “play, play, play” on the John Drew Theater stage at Guild Hall in East Hampton.
“This is all the mad genius and pure inspiration of Tina Jones, who approached me with a furious vision in her eyes that compelled me to respond with enthusiasm and support,” Mr. Gladstone said. “The play is quite sharply written and manages to entertain while simultaneously arousing and terrifying the audience. Oh, and it’s wildly witty, as well.”
It was love at first read for Ms. Jones, too, she said.
“I first came upon ‘Venus in Fur’ because a colleague of mine, Joe Brondo, and I had been discussing making and producing one’s work. I was looking for something and he thought I should read it, that it would be a great role for me to take on,” she said. “I fell for the play from the first read. It is funny, intelligent, sexy and multilayered. It requires comedic skill, but also power and charisma and adept language skills. There is great range. These sort of powerhouse roles don’t come along often for women.”
Ms. Jones portrays Wanda, an actress who bursts into an audition held by writer-director Thomas Novachek, acted by Tristan Vaughan. He is opening a new play—an adaptation of the 1870 novel “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which ultimately inspired the term “masochism”—and he’s searching for his leading lady.
Upon initial inspection, Wanda is simply not that. She’s sexy, but clearly unstable—she thinks the role of Vanda is predestined for her because they have nearly the same name—and a bit vulgar.
Yet, suddently, she begins to transform, first when she pulls out a vintage dress and puts it on, and then when she starts acting.
“I think what is most fun about playing Vanda is just that—that I really get to play,” Ms. Jones said. “In just letting the words and circumstance, the shifts between reality and fantasy and what I find in response to Tristan play on me. I am finding and vibrating so many parts of myself. Vanda is more than what she seems.”
Just as Wanda shifts into the leading lady, so does the play when Thomas begins performing his role as Kushemski, a poet with a weakness for fur that stems from his regal aunt who would beat him with a reed, giving him his first taste of pain meets pleasure. The play within a play, which sees Vanda become a domineering mistress to Kushemski, challenges audiences to take away new thoughts about the opposite sex, Mr. Gladstone said, as well as gender roles.
“It will put spice in all our dancing shoes,” he said.
Collaborating with Mr. Vaughan was a clear fit for Ms. Jones, she said. The play calls for an actor with classical chops, which he has in spades. He studied at both the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., as well as the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
“It has been such a joy working with Tristan,” she said. “We just have the right balance of play and focus and commitment. We are both just doing this for the love of theater, this play, and creating something.”
The JDTLab set will be simple, which is just how it is in the play—“thankfully,” Ms. Jones commented. But the two actors are pushing themselves in an unexpected way, despite “Venus in Fur” being a one-off, she said.
This will be as close to a full-fledged production as they can get, rather than a staged reading—as is expected in the works-in-progress series—giving audiences a taste of what Tony-nominated play by David Ives felt like.
“I don’t want [the audience] to come down hard in any direction,” she said. “This play is a lot about ambiguity. I don’t think there is just one possible interpretation. Hopefully, the play will provoke interesting discussions about power dynamics between men and women—in life, and in theater.”
“Venus in Fur,” starring Tina Jones and Tristan Vaughan, will stage on Tuesday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton, as part of the JDTLab series. Admission is free. For more information, call (631) 324-0806, or visit guildhall.org.