Venus in Fur: An intense evening of intensely good theater

by Kelly, Manager of Group Sales & Services

This week, Community Manager Louise and I took ourselves out for a grand night at the theatre with tickets to see the play “Venus in Fur,” starring Hugh Dancy and Nina Arianda.

Having already been a fan of Hugh Dancy’s from several movies I’ve seen him in (“The Jane Austen Book Club” and “Ella Enchanted” are just a few of his credits, along with a stint on the TV show “The Big C”), I’ll admit that he was not the main reason I was so anxious to see this play.  This past year, a star was born on Broadway in the form of actress Nina Arianda, who was Tony nominated for her starring role as Billie Dawn in the revival of the play “Born Yesterday.”  I was so enthralled with Arianda’s performance that I saw the play two times – and have been eagerly awaiting the Broadway production of “Venus in Fur” (which she played Off-Broadway previous to her breakout role in “Born Yesterday”) ever since.  Needless to say – neither actor disappointed in this production.

The play “Venus in Fur” is based on the novel “Venus in Furs,” first published in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.  The erotic novel focused on the desire of a nobleman named Severin to become slave to a woman, finding his ideal domination in Wanda (pronounced “Vanda”).  The novel remains to this day a literary statement on submission and control between the sexes, and earned the author lasting notoriety when the word “masochism” was coined from his name.

The play itself (written by David Ives), features playwright and director Thomas (played by Dancy), who has adapted the original novel into a stage version, frustrated by the inability to find the proper Vanda for his production.  Enter an actress with the same name as the character he is searching for – Vanda (played by Arianda) – exceptionally late for the audition and brimming with the type of ineptitude Thomas had been cursing all day in the women who have auditioned before her.  As a storm rages outside, the rumblings of tension begin onstage as Vanda attempts to convince Thomas to let her audition for his play, eventually succeeding and even convincing Thomas to read his own words with her.  At this point, an intricate dance begins between the characters, as the action in the written words morph into a real life dynamic being explored by Thomas and Vanda until the lines between fiction and reality are completely blurred.

 

Great shows are powered by great performances, and this show is the perfect example.  The chemistry between Dancy and Arianda is intense, and the tension created between the two onstage could be cut with a knife.  The true power of the play lies in the fact that the tension and intimacy are created in the words and their intentions rather than physical contact.  The little moments that don’t quite happen turn the relationship between the characters on its head, spin it around, and flip it to the reverse side – then back again as the power passes frequently between the two characters.  One of the most powerful scenes is a silent, tension-filled moment where Vanda demands (within the action detailed in the script she is reading) that Severin (Thomas) put on her shoes for her, leading Thomas to zip her into thigh-high boots.  The seemingly mundane activity was anything but as the audience succumbed to the tension in the air and was absolutely silent throughout the scene, eagerly awaiting the next move in the transfer of power.  Another great moment that could have easily been overlooked was the ambient rumbling of thunder in the background used as a great parallel to the battle Thomas is waging within as he explores the meaning he himself put into the text and is just now coming to terms with.

 

Arianda’s performance as Vanda is truly something to behold.  She switches from outlandish and overt comedy (with a few moments of physical comedy inserted which Arianda excels at) to the darker, sensual character in the play-within-a-play she is auditioning for with expert timing.  At one point, Arianda walked across the room as auditioner Vanda, tucked around a pole onstage, and immediately emerged on the other side as Vanda in the script mid-monologue.  This type of exciting shift was made possible both by the skill of Arianda and Dancy (though I haven’t said much about his particular performance, trust me – it was excellent.  This role in the hands of a lesser actor would have been a disservice to the play, as well as to Arianda), but credit must also be attributed to the smart direction of Walter Bobbie and, of course, David Ives’ intelligent and thought-provoking script.

Ives’ words are thought by some to be pretentious and a bit overworked.  I disagree.  It’s so refreshing to find a script that doesn’t dumb itself down for the masses and instead flies by quickly and articulately, leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions as to the meaning and intention of the piece.  There are several narrative surprises intertwined that you don’t see coming that take an already interesting story and kick it up a notch.  How does Vanda know so much about Thomas and his life?  What is her endgame – just to win the part…or is there more to it?  Has Thomas written his own secret desires into the character he has been coerced into performing, and if so – what will happen now that he’s brought these desires to the surface?  And most importantly…who exactly IS Vanda?  Is she what she seems…or something unexpected and so much more?  The great thing about this play is that it has been left open so that you can draw your own conclusions.

I suggest that you head quickly to the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre to see the play for yourself and do just that – draw your own conclusions.  The play is running through December 18th at its current location, but don’t despair – it will be reopening with the same cast at the Lyceum Theatre on February 7th.  One quick caution – this play is for adults only.  It’s a great, smart, intriguing night at the theatre…just make sure you’re up to the subject matter.  If you’re interested in tickets for this show or any others currently offered on or off Broadway, visit our website at www.newyorkguest.com, give us a call at 212-302-4019, or you can email me personally at kshoemaker@newyorkguest.com, and we’d be happy to assist.

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