Classic Stage Company
Speed-blogging (not really) Post #5: Venus in Fur
So remember how I wrote that Arthur Miller plays are like Fibonacci spirals, with the protagonists marching inward and inward towards definite ends that feel impossibly small? Well David Ives’s new play Venus in Fur also reminds me of a Fibonacci spiral, but one that moves the opposite way. It begins with a premise that is small and limited, but then it proceeds to open, over and over again, towards limitless possibility, ratcheting itself up and up with every turn until you are towering with it on the precipice of your own suspended disbelief. Sounds pretty dramatic, huh? Well dramatic is Venus in Fur in a nutshell.
Let me first get something very important out of the way. The lead actress in this play, Nina Arianda, is absolutely phenomenal. Fuh-nomenal. She blows the lid off the place. I haven’t seen an actress this committed, this compelling, this willing to leap into the abyss since…since…nope, I can’t even think of another performance to compare it to. She’s wiped my memory clean. I know I get easily excited about things, but really. This girl ain’t no joke.
For starters – and to fully digress from Mr. Fibonacci and his spiral for a moment – it’s a monster of a role. She plays a seemingly hare-brained actress who arrives late to audition for a fed-up, intellectual playwright; and yet, as alluded to earlier, all is not as it seems and the hare-brained actress reveals herself to be much, much more. It’s a frighteningly intelligent script and the role demands nothing less than the complete suite of actress ability – clownish comedic talent, animal sex appeal, terrifying dominance, genuine vulnerability, and girl-next-door charm. At first I considered it a winning lottery ticket – how lucky is this girl getting to show herself in so many lights? – but I quickly realized how unfair that is. Any lesser actress would have crumbled under this role’s burden.
But you know what? Why put her on a pedestal? She’s a young actress, just like me, not far out of grad school, just like me. Maybe Ms. Arianda did crumble at first – because what actress wouldn’t? But if she did, she clearly overcame it, dusted herself off and tried again. Or maybe she didn’t crumble. Maybe she approached the role methodically, attacking it one aspect at a time, deciphering it moment by moment, bird by bird (see writer Anne Lamott). Or maybe she just played. Maybe she just made a big ole make-believe mess, crayons and finger-paint flying everywhere, until finally she and her director brought out the 409 and edited it into shape. Any or all of these are possibilities. And it doesn’t help me any to believe I couldn’t do what she did, now does it?
Okay, now I really didn’t intend for Fibonacci to be a false start to this post, but in returning to the idea, I see that a Fibonacci spiral isn’t really the right metaphor. A cyclone is more apt. The play pulls you in at ground level to a playing field with limited scope – airhead actress meets frustrated playwright – and while you think oh I know where this is going, you don’t mind because the dialogue is good and the performances solid. The first turn of the cyclone is predictable – he lets her audition and surprise! she is remarkably good – but again the dialogue is engaging and the performances believable, so you’re still along for the ride. And now there’s this tension between the characters that seems to have lifted the play off the ground a little.
The play continues this way, making one turn and then another. And each time three things happen:
1) The scope of the playing field widens – oh my god we’re going to go there?
2) The commitment of the actors digs in even deeper – we’re going there, but I totally believe it.
3) The tension ratchets up – I’m totally believing this and man I feel dizzy!
And so it goes. Round and round the widening gyre, the play flings you up and out with every turn. But the center maintains its hold – that is, the writing and the performances are so strong they keep you from flying off into outer space. It’s one hell of a ride. And what’s more, the ride ends before things fall apart, leaving you feeling like you’d stand in line again just to go another time around.