Venus in Fur
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
November 9, 2011
Thomas has spent an entire day auditioning actresses for the central role in Venus in Fur, the play (within David Ives’s play of the same name) that he’s both directing and writing—that is, adapting from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella, also of the same name (yes, the layers get a little dizzying)—and he’s found no one even remotely plausible, not even a single “actress that can actually pronounce the word degradation.” (“Degradation” being a relevant word here because von Sacher-Masoch was the original masochist; the word “masochism” is derived from his name.) Thomas is tired, his fiancée is waiting for him to come home for dinner, the casting director and the reader have already left the somewhat rundown audition room (designed by John Lee Beatty with an accuracy sadly familiar to anyone who’s ever cast a small-budget show)—when in out of a rainstorm blows Vanda. She’s hours late for an audition slot that she might not even have legitimately booked; she’s dressed in a black leather outfit that seems at first glance entirely unsuitable to audition for a piece set in the late nineteenth century; the main credit on her resume is playing Hedda Gabler for the Urinal Theatre; she’s pissed off at the universe; and she seems utterly unserious, unqualified, and unsuitable—not to mention that she’s brought a giant bag full of props, a pet peeve of Thomas’s.
Yet, before Thomas knows what’s hit him, she’s changed into a thrift-store gown and convinced him to read a scene with her. And she’s pretty damn good. (Vanda, that is. Nina Arianda, reprising her star-making role as both Vanda-the-actress and Vanda-the-character-in-Thomas’s-play—layers again—is downright sensational.)
The rest of Venus in Fur—both David Ives’s frame play and Thomas’s adaptation—is a meditation on relationships of power in both love and theater. In the Sacher-Masoch novella, the young intellectual Severin falls in love with the coolly sensuous Vanda and, when she will not marry him, offers instead to serve as her slave, which she accepts—albeit not entirely comprehending why. In the audition room, the opposite power dynamic seems to be operating; the writer/director gives the orders and the auditioner should be the one acceding to demands—but when Thomas begins reading first the role of Severin to Vanda’s Vanda, and later the role of Vanda to Vanda’s Severin, things get more intricately fraught.
In seeming to abdicate power, as a lover taking degrading orders or an actress taking counterintuitive direction, what is one giving up, and what is one winning in return? Who holds the upper hand when a writer is simultaneously acting in and directing his own work? Who’s really in control when the masochist demands to be dominated? Who gets to define the boundaries of a relationship? When two people are simultaneously conducting an argument in and out of character, which has the upper hand at any given moment? And as the cat-and-mouse game proceeds and it becomes clear that Vanda might not have been entirely truthful in many facets of her self-presentation, the dynamics get even more complicated, with Vanda revealing and withholding information with what sometimes seems to be an agenda other than to get the part. And when Vanda starts to pick at Thomas’s relationship with his fiancee, to try to exert power over his personal life outside the studio, it becomes ever clearer that some more elaborate scheme is being enacted here.
Now, taken purely as a character, Vanda is full of inconsistencies and puzzling contradictions, and while this is clearly intentional on Ives’s part—things are meant to stop adding up as the cracks in Vanda’s seemingly daffy naivete start to reveal greater sophistication, knowledge, and power both in and out of her second character—the shifts can still feel unsatisfying and unmotivated. This is especially true from the middle of the play onward, while Thomas shuttles between being mesmerized by and mistrustful of Vanda.
But Arianda makes it all work—it’s a performance with remarkable specificity, crispness, and clarity in a role that could easily just seem muddled and incoherent. It’s a joy to watch the precision of her shifts between not just the two characters but the layers within them—Vanda-the-actress’s oscillation between daffy naivete and precisely calibrated manipulation; Vanda-the-character’s hauteur and vulnerability. Hugh Dancy, as Thomas, is a very charming foil, successfully navigating the trickiness of playing a non-actor who then needs to act a role, but the show belongs to Arianda.
To me, the play is more interesting the more layers it keeps in play—when it’s posing questions about the power dynamics inherent in theater as much as, or more than, the power dynamics in more literal forms of seduction. But even when the writing slips a little off the rails—as it did for me several times toward the end of the piece—it’s a pleasure to watch Arianda and Dancy work.