Don’tcha just hate those people who, hearing of a local production of a hot new play, look down their noses and pronounce: “I saw it in New York”?
“Venus in Fur”? I saw it in New York. And, while nothing can equal (at least in memory) Nina Arianda’s star turn in her Tony-winning breakout role as Vanda, the mysterious temptress of the title, the staging at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater is highly entertaining, well-acted and casts a slightly different light on the tale.
It’s about sex and power — and sex as power — a duet between a man and a woman in which the dynamic shifts from moment to moment so that sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s on first. Arianda, with the excellent Hugh Dancy as the man, emphasized the sex. At A.C.T., I was more aware of the power play. Both interpretations make for absorbing theater.
David Ives’ comedy-drama really is a play-within-a-play. Thomas (Henry Clarke), after many frustrating hours of auditioning actresses for the lead in a play he has written, is ready to call it a day when a rain-soaked girl bursts into the dingy studio (John Lee Beatty’s design for the New York production, tweaked a little for the San Francisco stage) full of excuses for being late and reasons why she would be perfect for the part. Brenda Meaney plays the role and, while she could be a little trashier in the beginning, once she takes on the part of Vanda (curiously both her name and the name of the character she is playing) she really is perfect for it.
Thomas has written an adaptation of an 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the man who gave — somewhat reluctantly — his name to the term “masochism,” which gives you a clue to what lies in store). An elegant and beautiful young woman, Vanda, returns a book to a young man, Severin, at a Carpathian mountain resort where both are staying. There is instant attraction. They talk. A deal is struck. If he will be her willing slave for a year she will be his. Or will she? Time passes and, while she abuses her adoring servant, Vanda falls in love with a handsome Greek, also staying at the inn. Severin throws off his shackles in a fury and, at last confronted with a man who is worthy of her, Vanda becomes his slave.
So that’s the play-within-a-play. But, as they rehearse, the modern Vanda starts to change things. She argues about the position of women: in the theater, in the world, in Thomas’ play. They change roles and she begins to direct him in the scenes. The whole thing takes on a mythic character as Aphrodite, a.k.a. the Venus of the title, gets involved. It’s pretty funny and kind of sexy and, under Casey Stangl’s direction, a fast-paced 90-minute romp through the varied landscape of human attraction.
Do we want love? Do we just want sex? Do we want to be dominated? Do we want to dominate? Do we even know what it is that we want? Don’t ask me. I’ve seen the play twice and I’m still not sure. Check it out and decide for yourself.