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A CurtainUp Review
Venus in Fur


Basically, he's got this beat-me-whip-me kink and he wants to see if she's up for it. He's auditioning her.— Vanda, commenting on the characters in the play Thomas has adapted from Ritter Leopold Sacher-Masoch 1870 novella about an aristocrat for whom true love calls for denial of self. Vanda wryly sums up the long term effect of a childhood whipping by a powerful aunt with So, actually, this play is, like, all about child abuse.
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
You might want to famliarize yourself with Ritter von Leopold Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novella Venus in Furs before you see Venus in Fur, the stage adaptation. (it's available as a free downloadat Project Gutenberg -- The text of the Sacher-Masoch novella about an aristocrat who equates true love with a denial of self includes a fascinating biography of the man, the latter part of whose name has been forever joined with that of the Marquis deSade in any discussion about those who prefer sexual partnerships in which one is the master and the other the willing slave. It will also give you a better understanding of the book's place in its author's literary canon.

Most of all, a look at Venus In Furs the novella, will make you more than ever appreciate David Ives' skills as a witty adapter who manages to be faithful to his inspirational source and yet fresh and original enough to warrant a by-line as playwright. Ives' steamy two-hander, Venus in Fur, was one of the Classic Stage's biggest ever hits, turned Nina Arianda into a star (landing her the role of Bllie Dawn in the revival of Born Yesterday and has now transferred to MTC's beautiful Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

While Ives started out with the intention of a straightforward page-to-stage translation within the novella's time frame, his final product fast forwarded the late 19th century's story to the present, and gave it an entirely new framework. Instead of exploring the sex and power dynamics through a series of conversations as the book does, he concocted a backstage story in which the actors (Nna Arianda and Hugh Dancy) play both the fictional characters, Dunayev and Kushemsky, as well as the adapter/director Thomas and an auditioning actress named Vanda. Since Vanda arrives so late that everyone except Thomas is gone, she manages to get him to stay and do the reading with her. This neatly eliminates the need for other actors on stage and also cleverly and often hilariously establishes the parallels in the interplay of sex and power now as then.

Of course the reason being late doesn't prevent Vanda from getting her chance to unpack the big shopping bag filled with costumes she's brought for her audition is that the character Ives as created and the actress playing her is an irresistible force of nature. Thomas can no more than the audience resist being blown away by Nina Arianda's bedazzling ditziness, sensualiiy and powerful control and timing — as well as her riveting physicality. Whether in period costume or trendy mini-skirt, she looks ravishing in Anita Yavich's witty costume.s

Walter Bobbie, who also directed Ives' terrific take on Moliere's School for Lies , is again on board to keep the intrigue of the impromptu audition and the play being auditioned moving along at a zippy pace. So are the designers. John Lee Beatty's plain but finely detailed rehearsal studio where the interaction between the two actors and their four characters becomes increasingly and entertainingly a blur between fantasy and reality fits comfortably, if a tad less intimately, into the larger Broadway venue's space.

The biggest change in the Broadway production is that Hugh Dancy is now Nina's sparring partner. While she remains the star attraction, he's a more than worthy partner, especially when the gap between his two characters becomes narrower and and more slippery.

Arianda's pumped-up performance never slackens. The scenario shifts smoothly into the more sinister territory where the question of who's in charge will be settled — or, as the play puts it, who will be the anvil and who will be the hammer. The table turning of master-slave roles does eventually feel like a few too many turns. David Ives' soluton for dealing with the questions raised by Vanda's over-preparedness for the audition lends a fun if somewhat too pat twist to the end. These minor quibbles notwithstanding, there's enough enjoyable decadence flavoured with a touch of darkness to make this the theatrical equivalent of digging into a sampler of Godiva chocolates.

To read a review of the original Off-Broadway production go here.

Venus in Fur
Director: Walter Bobbie
Written by David Ives
Cast: Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy
Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume design: Anita Yavich
Lighting design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound design: Acme Sound Partners
Fight direction: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: Buzz Cohen
Running Time: 90 minutes
MTC's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 W. 47th St.212-239-6200
From 10/13/11; opening 11/08/11; closing 12/18/11-- but reopening at the Lyceum from 2/07/12 to 6/17/12

Tickets: $57 – $121.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 3rd press preview
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