Venus in Fur
Fifty shades of something
by Sally Mitani
From the April, 2014 issue
Venus in Fur by David Ives made a big splash off Broadway and an even bigger one on Broadway when Nina Arianda won a Tony in 2012 for playing the role of Vanda in this two-hander based on a nineteenth-century erotic novella. Because of its racy origins, Venus likes to market itself as Fifty Shades of Gray meets--what? good writing, perhaps? If I were producing it, I'd probably take that irresistible low road too. Venus in Fur is a play within a play that purports to dramatize Venus in Furs (plural) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the guy who put the "masoch" in sado-masochism. The Performance Network poster is all kinky boots and fishnet stockings, and the website purringly describes it as "Epic. Intimate. Bondage."
Surprise! It's more in the tradition of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, David Mamet's Oleanna, and Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile--an hour and a half of crashing, colliding tectonic plates of intellectual history, thrillingly served up as watchable drama. Black leather is trivial titillation compared to the blissful release of "Oh my God! I don't need to read the twenty years' worth of Michigan Quarterly Review gathering dust in my office! I just saw them all summarized here!"
Thomas (played by Sebastian Gerstner) is directing his dramatization of the Sacher-Masoch text, and Vanda (Maggie Meyer) is an actress auditioning for a role in it. During her audition she analyzes and skewers the educated white male and his privileged position in the world, tackling him from perspectives you could call Marxist, feminist, Freudian, postmodern, and just about any other school of critical thought that has thundered through the last few centuries. Sometimes she gets tired of cogent argument and simply resorts to witty heckling.
And--as if there needs to be more--it's also about the seduction of theater and how role-playing is the very stuff of life itself. With all that, there's very little room for erotic shenanigans, though the lissome Meyer does cut a delectable figure stomping around the stage in leather bustier and high heels. Most of the time, I just wanted to listen to what she was saying and marvel at how she was saying it. Wondering whether it was possible that someone could be more captivating and inventive in this role than Maggie Meyer, I watched a clip of Arianda in her Tony-winning interpretation. Although it was just a snippet, I swear she didn't come close.
The play's run has recently been extended through April 13.
[Originally published in April, 2014.]