Opportunity Knocks: Nicaraguan director Jaime Zúñiga makes Taiwan debut with Venus in Fur

My Taipei Times piece (Friday, 15 May) on actor-director Jaime Zúñiga and his production of Venus in Fur running at Taipei National University of the Arts from 15-17 May.  All three performances are already sold out, though you might be able to grab a place on the floor if you show up early.


Three’s company: Director Jaime Zúñiga, left, with actors Chi Lee (鍾琪) and Lawrence Ong (翁書強).

Jaime Zúñiga takes his chances. Since a snap decision to join an extracurricular class at university in his native Nicaragua 15 years ago, the actor-director’s life has been a series of seized opportunities.

The guy from the theater department came in, and a girl that I liked raised her hand, so I raised my hand, too,” Zúñiga recalls. “I thought it would be easy and I would be doing a favor to art by just going on stage and being brilliant at it. But then I realized how much work was involved.”

Did his romantic ruse bear fruit? “We started dating and had fun doing all these activities together, but we broke up. So I fell in and out of love with her but started falling in love with theater.”

Following his graduation, Zúñiga landed a job with Danish shipping giant Maersk. A year later, he enrolled in their elite training program. The selection process was notoriously stringent, but he scented another break.

The program has trainees rotating positions every six to eight months and, as the sole representative for the whole of Nicaragua, Zúñiga gained experience in a wide range of areas. “Everything except sales and human resources that there is to do in the company, I did,” he says.

The program also involved frequent trips to HQ in Denmark for “very intense” training modules, which brought together trainees from around the world. These courses challenged his thinking and gave him an international perspective. “It’s a company that is everywhere and deals with all these cultures,” he says. “I still joke that if you can name a country, I can Facebook someone there.”

At the program’s conclusion, trainees are posted abroad for three years. Intrigued by Asia, Zúñiga chose Vietnam as his destination. While working full time in logistics in Ho Chi Minh City, “the theater bug,” he says “bit me again.”

In 2011, Zúñiga cofounded Dragonfly, Vietnam’s first professional English-language theater company. The company’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was listed alongside Bob Dylan’s Saigon gig as one of the events of the year and was the subject of a nationally broadcast TV documentary.

Once again, Zúñiga’s directorial debut was a case stepping into a half open doorway. He ended up directing the play at the behest of friends “simply because there was no one else.”

But Zúñiga remained restless. Moving to Bangkok with his wife in 2013, he realized he needed to dedicate himself to his art. “I owed it to myself to give it a try,” he says. However, barely had he helped establish another company, Peel the Limelight, than another opportunity presented itself. In September 2014, he arrived in Taiwan to undertake an arts management master’s on a scholarship.

My partner at Peel the Limelight was very upset and he told me something that now I realise is true: ‘You don’t realise it but you probably have more management training and ability than most of the arts managers that you will ever meet.’”

Collared: Lee vamps it up as Vanda, who takes control of Thomas, played by Ong.

Still, Zúñiga believed that he needed to immerse himself in an artistic environment. “I wanted the arts equivalent of a monastery in the mountains, for a novice monk to find the path I would follow the rest of my life.”

Amazingly, Zúñiga has been flying back to both Thailand and Vietnam to star in and produce shows while pursuing his studies. He has even managed to helm his own production here in Taiwan. Starting Friday, he will present Venus in Fur, a double-hander that premiered off-Broadway in 2010.

Racy and funny, David Ives’ play is a multi-layered work that sees the protagonists slip in and out of various roles. “Throughout the play, we are swimming in a vague sea of of ambiguity,” says Zúñiga.

The play opens with Thomas, a director, exasperated at the end of a day of abortive auditions for the female lead in his new play, an adaptation of Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs. As he is about to leave the theater, a brazen and unsophisticated actress named Vanda struts in and convinces him to let her try out for the part. An unpolished diamond, she catches him cold with her delivery of the lines, initiating a tit-for-tat struggle for supremacy.

Flippin’ scripts: Lee and Ong go over their lines.

For Zúñiga, the theme of female dominance has a particular resonance. “Taiwanese don’t realize how machista the society, the performing arts community, is here,” he says. “This is a role that humiliates men because of them trying to overpower women. This is a topic nobody’s talking about and I find it fascinating.”

Chi Lee (鍾琪), who plays the tramp-turned-vamp Vanda, thinks the play’s themes transcend gender. Auditions, she says, are a challenge exclusive of sexual considerations. “Everyone is looking at you, and you want to make them happy,” says Lee, who graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London with an MA in Performance Making. “That’s not just a gender issue, but a power issue.”

Portraying Vanda’s willing whipping boy is Lawrence Ong (翁書強). The Malaysian actor’s recent credits include a role in an adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber with the acclaimed Edward Lam Dance Theatre in Hong Hong.

Ong ponders the parallels between Vanda’s manipulation and certain passive-aggressive defense mechanisms. “I think there’s a way that Asian women, when they feel they are being victimized, retreat and use a softer approach to deal with it,” he says.

Cover up: Dressing up and wearing disguises are reccurrent themes in the play.

While Zúñiga champions an art for art’s sake approach to his craft, he is aware of Venus’ potential as a social critique. In researching the play, he came across a production in Singapore featuring a Western actor playing Thomas. Zúñiga balked at this casting decision, feeling it showed a lack of nous. “Besides the fact you don’t need to cast a white guy, you’re missing a great opportunity to tell another story,” he says.

And Jaime Zúñiga is not one for missed opportunities.

Venus in Fur runs from Friday May 15 to Sunday May 17 at Taipei National University of the Arts.

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