Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Venus in Fur

A story I once heard kept haunting me during Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of David Ives’ Venus in Fur: when Michelangelo worked on the Sistine Chapel’s The Last Judgment, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, continually complained about the nudity in it. So Michelangelo added his visage to the painting, casting him as a character in the underworld, for all to see.

Ives’ character, Thomas (Hugh Dancy), seems reminiscent to Biagio. A sanctimonious director/playwright, who says “ciao” at the end of his phone conversations, relinquishes his identity of game master, of controller, so readily in the play that the story becomes, in a sense, the ultimate revenge fantasy—which got me wondering: who pissed off Ives so much? After all, the playwright-director/actor-director relationship isn’t always ideal. Wouldn’t seeing a comeuppance on stage offer liberation? Could Thomas be more than just a character? And, for me, that was the problem: this conspiracy theory fascinated me far greater than the play itself.

This sexy story about submission, based on the 1870 novel Venus im Pelz by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch—a work that coined the phrase “sado-masochism”— contains a clever construct, a play-within-a-play structure: we see both the audition and Thomas’ new play unfold. Thomas, as director/playwright, has just finished auditioning actresses and the dearth of talent frustrates him. He vents to his fiancée on his cell phone that he longs for femininity, something the current crop of performers—dressed half like hookers, half like dykes—cannot provide. A clap of thunder, much like the sound of a snapping whip, interrupts his tirade and Vanda (Nina Arianda, who also played the role in the 2010 Classic Stage Company production) bursts in from the rain, wrapped in a trench coat, and brandishing a broken umbrella.

A force of nature herself, she chatters continuously until Thomas reopens the casting for Venus in Fur, a play coincidentally that’s also based on the same von Sacher-Masoch’s book about an aristocrat who becomes a willing slave to a woman. At first, Vanda and Thomas can’t connect. She sees his play as S&M porn; he insists it shows a great love story. As the audition progresses, though, Thomas’ perception of Vonda changes as she convincingly mimics the Continental diction of a refined Victorian woman completely transforming herself. As the two continue reciting lines, Vonda and Thomas switch roles, as she offers him direction and, ultimately, subjugates him.

Arianda makes Vanda a multilayered character—initially she poses as a bondage babe clad in high-heeled ankle boots and black leather with a trash-talking mouth, before metamorphosing into someone doe-eyed and naïve, perhaps even stupid, to a more calculating figure, who just happens to bring costumes, including a white virginal dress for her and a $3 green velveteen coat for Thomas. Dancy’s portrayal isn’t as vivid. He often gets a laugh with a wide-eyed look of incredulity or a well-placed grimace. Yet, at times, his character feels withdrawn, almost too insular, rather than displaying the passivity of subservience expected.

The set, designed by John Lee Beatty, realistically portrays the cold barrenness of a rehearsal hall, with its eerie fluorescence—especially effective are the shafts of light filtering through the window as if the building once housed a factory (designed by Peter Kaczorowski). Directed ably by Walter Bobbie, the juxtaposition of the past with the present never becomes confusing and the machine-gun like dialogue moves easily, combining humor with an eroticism that’s both sensuous and uncomfortably sinister. Unfortunately, though, the story never surpasses its initial frothiness. It provocates without really moving you, which gets me thinking again: who is Ives’ Biagio?

Limited 10-week engagement through Sunday, December 18.
(Tickets purchased at Telecharge/mezzanine D3)

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