If “Venus in Fur” sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of “Venus in Furs,” the song that plays as the lights come up at Goodman Theatre.

Or perhaps you’re thinking of the kinky 1870 book “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which inspired the song. Masochism was named after this Austrian author.

That same novel also provides the subtext for “Venus in Fur” (that’s “Fur,” singular), a clever, enthralling and sexy play by David Ives making its Chicago premiere at the Goodman.

It’s about a playwright named Thomas (Rufus Collins) who has written a stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s notorious novel—the story of a man who asks a woman to make him her slave, the only way he knows how to experience love.

Thomas is directing his own play, and he’s finishing up a long and frustrating day of auditions. He’s talking on his cellphone, griping that he can’t find a young, sexy actress sophisticated or intellectual enough to star in his play.

That’s when an actress named Vanda (Amanda Drinkall) bursts in, shouting profanities as she explains why she’s hours late for her scheduled audition (which wasn’t actually scheduled at all). At first, Thomas is dismissive and impatient, refusing to let Vanda read for the part. Dressed in a bondage outfit and squeaking out ill-informed questions, she comes across like yet another one of the young, dumb women Thomas has been complaining about.

But when Thomas relents and allows Vanda to audition, a remarkable transformation takes place. As Vanda performs, she suddenly assumes an elegant mid-Atlantic accent. And gradually, it becomes clear that she’s much smarter and more talented than she seemed.

“Venus in Fur” (directed at the Goodman by Joanie Schultz) is quite funny, especially in those moments when Drinkall abruptly switches back and forth between Vanda’s personas, or when Collins’ character sputters in stunned reaction to this surprising and beguiling actress.

As the audition absurdly goes on and on—essentially taking up the entirety of Ives’ 100-minute play—Vanda begins to take over Thomas’ script, offering feminist critiques of the way he has portrayed his female character. Vanda is toying with Thomas, but what is she up to? And who is she, really?

These questions aren’t answered until the end, which generates a bit of suspense, but “Venus in Fur” isn’t primarily a mystery to be solved. Rather, it’s a wrestling match of wits and willpower between its male and female protagonists. As a spectator sport, it’s both delightful and insightful to watch.

 

Venus in Fur” continues through April 13 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. Call 312-443-3800 or visit the theatre’s website for tickets and schedule.

Photo: Amanda Drinkall and Rufus Collins in “Venus in Fur” at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren.

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