[Maggie Roop as Vanda and James Ricks as Thomas in Venus in Fur.]
As Venus in Fur approaches closing weekend, CompanyArtist Michael Todd sat down with Maggie Roop, who plays the role of Vanda, for an interview about delving deeper into a complicated show that tackles gender, status, and power in a sexually-charged game of cat and mouse.
Michael Todd: How would you describe Vanda?
Maggie Roop: That’s a hard question to answer. There is so much we decided about her, which I really want to leave up to the audience to decide for themselves. At the beginning she is presenting herself as a stereotype of a certain kind of actress in an audition setting. She has these traits that people associate with young theatre people: bubbly, effervescent, fun, charismatic but maybe a little flighty. It’s easy to see that first impression and pin her down, but who she is when she comes in at the beginning is one of many choices she makes to see how Thomas reacts, to prove a point. It’s important not to write her off. She’s disarming him by embodying all that he hates in order to challenge him, and she wins that round by figuring out a way for him to be unable to avoid the audition. I think we’re putting a kaleidoscope over the whole experience that Thomas has had that day before she walks in, putting all those facets into one person and we see what he does with that.
MT: The show follows a sexually-charged, cat and mouse power play between Vanda and Thomas. What are your feelings on the dynamic between these two characters?
MR: It was very important, for me, to be very deliberate with the physical contact. For Thomas to get too much too soon would be too indulgent and would take away from the build at the end of the play. The resistance was really important to me, and holding back from indulging certain physical choices and impulses helped us to maintain that resistance. It was important to all of us to bring the audience just to brink in terms of what they get to see and how far these two people take things physically and to still not quite get there! [Playwright] David Ives has put so many stage directions in this play. He is very explicit about a lot of the physicality. This is one of the reasons why the resistance and restraint were so important to me. Ives tells you exactly when he wants them to be touching each other, and all of the miming, the eventual violence -- it’s all in the script.
MT: Given the progression of the show, it seems easy to wonder whether Thomas ever had any power from the beginning. What are your thoughts on how the power is distributed between the two?
MR: In my mind, as the actor, [Thomas] can’t ever really have control. I do think he has to be a worthy adversary, or the play would end too soon. Part of the reason Vanda stays -- because they both have the choice to leave or stay, in the beginning, or so he thinks -- the reason she sticks around is because she’s getting something out of this interaction. She’s enjoying it and she’s compelled by him. For my purposes, technically speaking, I have to make sure that Vanda is always in control and is always sure what her next play is going to be. I think she always knows what her next tactic is, beforehand, but she’s giving him a chance to give her more fuel.
MT: This show is a complicated example of metatheatre. Whereas normal plays act as kinds of mirrors to our reality and our struggles, allowing for a suspension of disbelief, metatheatre approaches this identification through an exaggeration that makes us sort through what is illusion to get to the truth of our reality. And of course, all exaggerations are based in truth. Can you talk a little about some of the truth this play is rooted in?
MR: I think the most boiled down truth in this play can be found in the nuanced moments that take place between Thomas and Vanda. There are these little interactions both in the text and that we've built which punch up the subtle sexism that is experienced by women every day in our society. This quiet, insidious brand of sexism is what lays the foundation for a societal structure that nurtures blatant inequality and violence against women. The metatheatre aspect and the themes of domination and submission are brilliant tools to create a dramatic construct which allows us to step back and see an unhealthy or unsafe male/female dynamic turned on its head and stretched to the extreme. Then we can allow this exaggerated and heightened scenario to affect us, digest what we've seen and see how we can apply what we're left with to reality. The imagery that is with us and the feelings we walk away with can inform the way we think or talk about where women are today and how power and agency are being given to and embraced by us.
MT: In what way, or ways, does the show go beyond fantasy and apply to everyday women?
MR: I think this show is saying, “It’s okay to fight back. You can have the debate or conversation with your oppressor instead of having the experience and then walking away.” What if men always walked around treating women like someone else was watching? Whether it’s Mom, or God, or whoever it is you don’t want to disappoint. What if you thought about if this happened to you? I think that’s in there.
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