David Ives' "Venus in Fur," a hit Broadway show in 2011, is a very self-aware and theatrical study of the intersection of power and eroticism. It features a relationship between a director and an auditioning actress who rapidly strips down to her lingerie and who, when pushed, wields a whip to help her get what she wants.
For its upcoming production, which begins preview performances Saturday, the Goodman Theatre has cast not a New York actress with experience as a dominatrix but a young Chicago actress who has emerged from Chicago's non-Equity theater scene on stages like the Strawdog Theatre Company and the Red Tape Theatre. She grew up on a farm near Oswego, the child, she says, of very nice and very conservative Presbyterian parents. Shoppers at Trader Joe's on Diversey Parkway on Chicago's North Side might recognize her (well, if they are especially perspicacious) from the checkout lines at that grocery store, where she chats with shoppers, as her employer requires, but leaves her whip at home.
The actress-checkout clerk is Amanda Drinkall, who has snagged the role that pretty much every young (or youngish) actress in Chicago wanted. This weekend she gets a very big break. When this show opened on Broadway, it made a star out of the similarly emergent actress Nina Arianda.
"My parents told me I couldn't be an actor," Drinkall said over lunch last week, explaining how she started out at the University of Illinois far from its theater department. But she won out and switched majors. After graduation, she moved to Chicago in 2008 and has slogged away in the off-Loop, leaving town for a stint at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. But she gained significant attention last year when she starred, superbly, in "Great Expectations" at Strawdog, an apt title for what now lies ahead as Drinkall plays opposite Rufus Collins.
"Venus in Fur" actually is not Drinkall's first Goodman appearance; she also showed up in Robert Falls' production of "Measure for Measure," but that show featured a very decadent visual landscape making it easy to miss the actors in smaller roles.
"I was the one showing my boobs," Drinkall said, by way of reminding a writer where she was on that stage and what she did. "You saw all of me."
"It's amazing how being in your underwear really makes you not nervous at all," Drinkall said. "Everyone else gets nervous for you. So that actually gives you more power than anyone else in the room. That, at least, is what I am telling myself."
Drinkall, who lives in a studio apartment in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, says she still is "giddy" about this gig and pinching herself on a daily basis over this role in director Joanie Schultz's production.
"Somehow I tricked everyone into picking me," she said.
As for how she has managed to spin such a wholesome background into such a racy character, she grinned.
"I suppose it's all my inner rebellion," she said. "The role really is very me. I'm a bubbly, flirty kind of person, but I also have classical training from college. And I did a lot of super-experimental and weird stuff at Red Tape. They told me I was the first person they saw for the role. It really messes with what you think of as gender roles. Sometimes in this play you can't tell what is authoritative and what is submissive. There really is a lot more to it than I first thought."
And what do her parents think of this?
"They're coming," Drinkall said. "I guess I might have a fair bit of explaining to do."
She also has something new to tell those Trader Joe's shoppers. She plans to keep her job, at least working Mondays.
"Once the show closes," she says. "I'll be unemployed again in the theater."
"Venus in Fur" opens March 18 and runs through April 13 at the Goodman Theatre; tickets ($25-$86; subject to change) at goodmantheatre.org/venus.
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