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Dressing “Venus” Designer Anita Yavich gets metaphysical for Broadway’s “Venus in Fur”

By ERIC GRODE

Bags of tricks don’t get much deeper or kinkier than the one Vanda carries into her audition/ambush/apotheosis in Venus in Fur.

Though she seems like a desperate actress with a thick outer-borough accent, Vanda (Nina Arianda) quickly commandeers her would-be director, Thomas (Hugh Dancy), with the help of her roomy satchel. She's carrying thigh-high boots, frock coats, froufrou dresses and everything else a girl would need to enact David Ives’s sprightly riff on the 1870 novella “Venus in Furs." Clothes make the man and woman here, then remake and re-remake them, upending any number of power dynamics along the way.

That’s where Anita Yavich comes in. An Obie Award-winning costume designer, she earned a Henry Hewes Design Award nomination for her work on Venus in Fur's Off-Broadway run with Classic Stage Company last year. She's back on board for the Broadway transfer, which is currently in previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

To suit the ambitions of the play, her costumes have to strike a balance between literal and metaphysical worlds. How much is happening in the dingy rehearsal room where Vanda and Thomas initially meet, and how much is happening in a more abstract realm of desire and debasement?

This ambiguity emerges in costume pieces like the men’s frock coat that Vanda pulls out of her seemingly bottomless bag. It's a green specimen that fits Thomas like a glove, and it dates to the very era of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novella. (His predilections inspired the word "masochism.")

“I wanted to distress [the coat] in a particular way so that it could be old and feel old, but without being threadbare,” Yavich says. “It’s all part of this fine line we walk in the play: Is it real? Is it imaginary? Or do the two blend together?”

Yavich faces similar questions for her other Broadway play, David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish, which is currently running just up the street from Venus in Fur. A bittersweet comedy about cultural misunderstandings among Chinese, British, and American characters, it often hinges on the misleading power of appearances. “The Chinese want to look sophisticated and look Western,” says Yavich, who was born and raised in Hong Kong. “Some people pull it together and some don’t. So I thought, What kind of mistakes would some people make in trying to look Westernized?”

No matter how evocative they are, though, all these costumes need to support the actors wearing them. In Venus in Fur, Arianda and Dancy, who replaced Wes Bentley in the role of Thomas, have been quite involved with selecting their wardrobe. Yavich says, “Hugh’s stuff changed a little bit, because he was new, but it’s still within a very precise range. He was very, very specific. We brought in a bunch of racks.” And so his fitted T-shirt, which befits a hip young artist, can also be layered with a professorial jacket (when he’s in director mode) or the aforementioned frock coat and even a heavily buttoned servant’s coat. 

“A lot of Vanda’s clothes are already built into the script,” Yavich adds. “But we worked with Nina very closely: her body, her comfort level, what she likes.” One example is the ruffled (but see-through) white dress that Vanda puts for the most demure part of her audition. “The dress was designed ahead of time, and then it evolved during rehearsal. We added a second zipper to give Nina some more options in terms of how to take it on and off. That sort of thing.”

While some of the specific items were tweaked, Yavich didn't adjust them for the transition to a large Broadway venue, even though the Samuel J. Friedman has three times as many seats as CSC's theatre. “They read big anyway downtown,” she says. “Makeup is the only thing we’ve really needed to adjust."

Beyond that, it’s up to the audience to do the adjusting. And with each dip into Yavich’s reality-bending bag of clothes, they must adjust all over again.

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In 2003, Anita Yavich received the TDF/Irene Sharaff Young Master Award.

Eric Grode is the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press).