Thursday, May 31, 2012

Venus in Fur

Photo: Joan Marcus
Most of Venus in Furs' critical reception has centered around the force of nature that is Nina Arianda, and on this front I have nothing but more praise to add. She is, quite simply, amazing. I say this as someone who is both enormously cynical and often willfully oppositional, and also as someone who has been hearing endless accolades about Arianda since Venus in Fur premiered Off Broadway in January, 2010. That's a lot of accolades. And yeah, she deserves them. She's dynamite.

David Ives's play, however, for all its twists and turns, ultimately didn't thrill me as much as Arianda did. This has probably been discussed to death at this point, too, but I haven't read much from a feminist angle. Which is odd, since the play--a play within a play, really--is all about gender and sexuality. Ives, a male playwright, has created a male playwright (and, from the get-go, an all-too-thunderingly obvious misogynist), who has adapted a play based on the 1870 novella Venus im Pelz by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which, in turn, is all about gender and sexuality. Ives's fictional playwright, Thomas, is frustrated as the action begins, because he can't find a single woman to convincingly play Vanda, the idealized dominatrix at the center of his play's action: they are all, he complains via cellphone to his fiancée, stupid, needy, and crude. As he's ranting, in gusts an actress, curiously named Vanda, dressed from head to toe in bondage wear. Much to Thomas's dismay, she immediately exhibits all of the purportedly feminine traits that he has just listed as most irritating to him.

But then the two begin to read, and lo and behold, this actress, Vanda, turns out to be perfect in the role of his character, Vanda. And Thomas gets drawn in--and increasingly aroused--by her interpretation, even as he becomes more and more confused by who, exactly, this woman is. Why was she not on the audition list? Why is her name Vanda? How did she get her hands on the script, and why has she already memorized the entire thing? Why does she know so very much about his personal life? As the show progresses, Vanda slowly but thoroughly subverts Thomas's preconceived notions about women; neatly demonstrates that he is the one who is stupid, needy, and crude; challenges the deeply rooted sexism in both the Sacher-Masoch novella and Thomas's adaptation; feminizes the playwright; and finally, we assume, destroys him. Also as the play progresses, Ives sees to it that we, the audience, ask our own questions: Does Thomas, the fictional playwright, represent Ives? Or is Ives Vanda? Where does character end and playwright begin? And what, exactly, does Ives think of Sacher-Masoch's work?

Ives is clearly well aware of the overwhelming meta-ness of his creation; it's obvious in the way he's constructed Venus in Fur. For all the sexual twisting, turning, subverting and reverting, Vanda is certainly the more interesting, sympathetic, compelling character, while Thomas is a real dickhead. Vanda makes mincemeat of Thomas and everything he stands for; Thomas, evil misogynist that he is, gets what he deserves in the end. Score one for women everywhere!
But see here, now: One can't eat one's male gaze and have it, too. And that's my problem with Ives's play. It was fun, sure, and there is nothing more thrilling than watching good actors make very physically and emotionally demanding roles look fresh, easy and graceful, especially two years into a run. But never for a minute did I forget that Arianda as Vanda--powerhouse though she may be--was being triply subjected: by Ives, by his fictional playwright, by the audience. It always strikes me as both kind of funny and kind of sad that feminism goes down so much more easily when its ideals are being touted by a woman who conforms to heteronormative perceptions of Western desireability. Call me crazy, but somehow, I just don't see this show flying quite as high or lasting nearly as long had the central female role been written for a woman who doesn't spend most of the evening in black lingerie, spike heels, and lacy garters. Call me a man-hating, ball-busting, frigid bitch of a feminist if you will, but the fact that Arianda is almost never wearing more than black, bondage-themed lingerie (well, okay, and a dog collar) while she strikes a blow for women just makes me feel sort of tired at this point.
As did the ending to the show. Ives's play spends a tremendous amount of time and energy admonishing its central male character to stop being so reductive when it comes to gender roles. I suppose that Ives found himself kind of stuck at the end, but his summation struck me as tremendously reductive, and thus a particularly crushing copout. This is not entirely fair of me: the questions Ives raises through the show are far too big to be answered neatly in one 100-minute play. After all, male social constructs loom long and large in these parts. And even though Thomas gets his just desserts, Ives alone is not responsible for coming to terms with the fact that Venus--and the very civilization that spawned her--were male constructions, too.

1 comment:

Alan B said...

"the central female role been written for a woman who doesn't spend most of the evening in black lingerie, spike heels, and lacy garters"

I wasn't as obsessed about this as you apparently were, but I think her costuming was more varied and for more time than you assertion suggests.