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article imageReview: 'Venus in Fur' sizzles with humour, tension on the Toronto stage Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Oct 5, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - Gender politics are rarely as funny, or as thought-provoking, as they are in “Venus in Fur.” Making its Canadian debut in Toronto, David Ives' Tony-winning one-act play cleverly twists satire and eroticism into an exciting, sexy stage winner.
A hit on Broadway less than two years ago, Venus in Fur starts off like a lightweight comedy and gradually moves into darker, more challenging places, as it depicts a shifting power balance between a playwright and director, Thomas (Rick Miller, of MacHomer fame), and an aspiring actress, Vanda (Carly Street). In director Jennifer Tarver's hands, it entertains as naturally as it both celebrates and subverts notions of S&M fantasy. It's a great start to Canadian Stage's new season.
Thomas is desperate to find a female lead for his new work, a theatrical adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's erotic 19th-century novel Venus in Furs, but he can't find an actress with the right mix of youth, sophistication and sexiness. “Most young women who are twenty-four are like six-year-olds on helium,” he rants on the phone to his unseen fiancée after a day of auditions. “Half are dressed like hookers, half like dykes.”
Enter Vanda, desperate, needy, vulgar and seemingly clueless, who begs and whines until Thomas reluctantly lets her read for the part of Wanda von Dunajew. With a brash Noo Yawk accent and a loud, braying voice, Street's Vanda seems to embody every negative generalization Thomas has been complaining about — until she starts to play the part.
Vanda, clearly, is not what she seems. Adopting a classy mid-Atlantic dialect and a flowing 1870s dress (one of many uncannily suitable costumes and props she has brought with her in a large bag), she not only nails the character of Wanda, but even recruits Thomas into matching her note for note as Severin von Kusiemski. Barely even looking at her script, she not only knows the play and source novel far better than she has let on — she even seems to understand them better than Thomas does.
“So, basically, it’s S&M porn?” she tells Thomas, who's under the impression that he's adapting a serious novel into his own work of art. As they reenact the story — about an Austrian aristocrat who wants the woman with whom he's obsessed to demean and degrade him — real sexual tension starts simmering between the pair. Their statuses change gradually as they recite and improvise on Sacher-Masoch's story, interrupted by their disagreements on whether it's misogynistic fantasy or deep literature.
“You don’t have to tell me about sadomasochism. I’m in the theatre,” Vanda quips at one point, later adding that in Thomas' role as a director, “It's your job to torture actors.”
Some may scoff at the play's meta-theatrical conceits. After all, writers are often told that it's bad, and wrong, and wrong, and jes' plain bad, to write poetry about poetry — so is it equally wrong to create theatre about theatre? (And does that make Tom Stoppard an amateurish hack? ) But any intelligent audience member should be able to see that Thomas' and Vanda's play-acting is only an instrument through which Ives explores gender dynamics. Thomas, who doesn't see himself as sexist or objectifying women, obviously is, and it takes Vanda's quick wit to show Thomas who he really is under the surface.
The Broadway production of Venus in Fur made a stage star out of Nina Arianda, who won several awards for originating the role of Vanda/Wanda. It's a challenging part, almost a dual role, with alternating accents, poses and motivations all over the place. And Street aces it. Her take on Vanda is a little reminiscent of Mira Sorvino's prostitute in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, except a lot smarter, but the real treat is how gracefully she transitions into Wanda. There's no sudden jolt between the two polar personalities; it's as if she's switching hats.
Miller has a less meaty role as Thomas, who plays straight man to Vanda, but he's more than believable enough as a self-important artist who doesn't like being taken down a notch. His fine chemistry with Street, both in and out of “character,” keeps the pace moving up to the play's ironic conclusion. Tarver's carefully constructed blocking keeps Miller and Street at a safe distance most of the time, slowly bringing them closer as the tension rises.
A deceptively simple play that wisely eschews shock value in favour of verbal sexiness and preachiness in favour of ideas, Venus in Fur is a terrific night of theatre. You could even say you might be willing to, ahem, submit to it.
Venus in Fur runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, until October 27.
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