Venus in Fur – Where Nina Arianda SHUTS IT DOWN

After leaving the Lyceum Theater the other night, I felt blessed. Not only because I witnessed a thought-provoking, surprising and engaging drama. Not only because I saw the two leads, Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy, give committed performances, both worthy of Tony nominations with the former assured to take down the top prize. No, I am grateful because the entire package is theater brilliance and I got a second chance to see it.

Now, THAT is poise. Bow to
Miss Nina...
As I am sure most of you know, Venus in Fur played a limited engagement back in the Fall at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. To my utter misfortunate, I could not rush or see the show for cheap past the show’s opening in November; the only option at that point was standby for full price (yeah, like that was ever going to happen). Imagine my delight when the announcement was made that the show was going to reopen again the spring…let me tell you, I was not going to miss out this time. It also made sense; the show is so well done that no one was taking a chance they would be forgotten when the Tony ballots started circulating.

I’m calling it now…Best Play, Best Direction (very well-done Walter Bobbie) and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role nominations, all of which also have the potential of winning. Oh, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role has already been decided. Sorry other leading ladies…this is Arianda’s to lose and she is not going to. She better not otherwise I am setting fire to Broadway like Adele does to rain.

What she achieves on stage in 90 minutes is unhindered flawlessness. I am calling it like it is: losing the Tony award last year for Born Yesterday was the best thing that could have happened to her. Her Vanda, a struggling actress trying to secure the role of Vanda in a production of Venus in Fur (see what the show did there), is a “FU** YOU TONY VOTERS; I AM FABULOUS” in performance form. Actually, that is not true; if an orgasm were to ever take human mold, it would be Miss Nina here. I can not send up any more air-snaps if I tried; I am convinced my fingers need surgery.

In short, she plays one character who is playing about four or seven characters (I stopped counting passed a point) with at least three of them possessing different accents/dialects. She nails each transformation without skipping a beat and thusly, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat as to which of her multiple personalities “characters” has come out to play at the moment. If I did not know any better, I would think Arianda contracted bipolar or schizophrenia to pull this off. From ditzy actress to 1870’s trans-continental noblewoman to German, sexual goddess Venus to Nobleman Thomas Kushemski, she handles everything aplomb. Drama, sadness, comedy, fear, sex, amongst 50 other emotions…she has it all in spades and the audience feels every single one.

To the credit of David Ives, the writing of Vanda is an impressive three-dimensional concoction. She is revealed to know more about the production then she lets on, going as far as having the entire unreleased script. It does not end there though; she turns out to be a dizzying, mastermind of sorts honing in on Thomas' personal life and manipulating him like a professional...and it gets JUICY. If I had a female reproduction system going on, her sex appeal would have impregnated me with triplets. Ladies and Gents? Double Triple your birth control because you cannot stop the Arianda…I wouldn’t; even though 22 is too young for me to start reproducing.

Don't mess with me Dancy; I need this Tony.
The thing about Dancy, playing the casting director/writer, Thomas, that gets caught up in Vanda’s audition, is…he’s good. Great even; but the role was written for him to play second fiddle to Vanda owning everything (including his man parts), so his performance was going to look inferior and not as memorable by default. I would say that is a shame, but the show basically called for it (and from what I am aware, that is how Venus in Fur was always intended).

Besides, the show has only two characters, so the show rests on their shoulders. As a team, they are so pitch-perfect with their chemistry, you really feel the heat of their exchanges and verbal jousting. The writing is very interesting (if occasionally a little garish and pretentious), but its Dancy and Arianda that draws you into their cat-and-mouse sexcapades, only to release you back into the wild. For a show to aim for “sexy” and NAIL it without some ostentatious flair (other then Arianda wearing some pseudo-dominatrix outfit), that is impressive.

In fact, the creative team certainly knew how to create a scene and polish off the detailing. I, of course, love a good stage and the cell-like audition space, suspended in an air of darkness, added to the setting and drama. That motif also adds to the suspension of time, not just the era the show is set in (which is never really established). As Vanda and Thomas are in their own little world, the occasional phone call from Thomas’ girlfriend brings the show back to reality.

As I am writing this now, I can’t help but applaud how…nuanced the show was adapted for a modern audience. Bear with me here; writing this out is not exactly easy. It would have been obvious to have someone attempt to modernize the source material for 2012; in hindsight, that probably would have been a little misguided. The beauty of staging an audition within the actual Venus in Fur is that the show is allowed to indulge in the metatexual game, going as far as having Dancy playing an American who eventually takes on a British accent.

Having Vanda and Thomas, in actress/casting mode, openly discuss Leopold von Sacher-Masoch original text and what it means adds to the meta factor. Vanda, with a nice bit of social commentary on the modern day flake, takes a more vapid, “this play is about S&M” approach while the latter combats her with the subtext the novel was created. Written by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, who lent meaning to the definition of masochism (so she's not entirely wrong), the play pries itself on the upper-class vs. lower class and man vs. woman relationships and how the superior/inferior roles are interchangeable on human nature alone. All the themes of the 19th century Venus in Fur are brought to life with all the script flipping and power struggle between the two leads, feeling worthwhile and interesting in the 21st century without being too literal or drawing some horrible parallels.

Funny story – I got on the phone with my BFF Kay and when I told her about the show, and jokingly, her first words were “S&M!” Too perfect and I love her even more after that.

In short, I love Venus in Fur for being ambitious and for having a lot on its plate…but it follows through across the board. Nothing is more irritating to me then a show that thinks it is smarter then its audience; meanwhile, the show cannot be fully explored or is more muddled then intended. As an audience member, I followed the show right down to the very ending, completely enthralled, with an conclusion so Black Swanian in its passion and power, I had to look around the audience to see if they had the same jaw-dropped expression as I did. It was dark...but there was some mouth covering.

But seriously…the Arianda. Her performance alone justifies seeing the show and if you are in the market for an immaculate conception via Tony-worthy acting, she has you covered there the moment she takes the stage. Otherwise, gird your loins!

Photo Credits: Joan Marcus via Zap2It and StageRush

1 comment:

Leahmore Kristiansen said...

I am all late to this post and play and Hugh Dancy. I didn't know him til I recently saw Hysteria - Fan. So thank You great read - wish I were seeing the great theater that I'm not - have not . but in due time... and I do have what I've seen in the past...