Friday, October 4, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Venus in Fur

Rick Miller, Carly Street (photo by David Hou)
All hail Aphrodite!
…Venus in Fur is sublime
by Dave Ross

What is S&M? I’m fairly certain the average person on the street has heard of it, but can they define it? I expect not. My own definition is loose – I understand that S&M exists in the tension between dominance and submission. It isn’t necessarily sexual, but isn’t entirely non-sexual either. Does it involve leather? Perhaps. Does it involve pain? Not always. S&M exists in one of those murky areas, a kink for many, a mainstay for some. It is nearly impossible to nail down, but is defined by the tensions that exist between two polar opposites. 

And of course Thomas will fall for Vanda as they read his steamy script. Right? 

It is this tension that so remarkably permeates the Canadian Stage production of Venus in Fur, running now at the Bluma Appel Theatre. The program notes promise us that this play blurs reality and fantasy. This language doesn’t do David Ives’s script proper justice. It doesn’t blur fantasy and reality so much as it teases at them, pokes and prods at the boundaries of these two ideas. In doing so Ives has the audience completely on its toes as to what exactly is happening on the stage. Thomas (Rick Miller), a playwright and director looks desperately to find an actress to play Vanda, the female lead in his adaptation of the story Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. In walks an actress named Vanda (Carly Street), and the story really begins. There are elements of the script that feel predictable from the moment lines are spoken. We have an actress named Vanda, with no credits to her name, who is crass, brash and loud, is drenched from a storm and hours late for her audition appointment that doesn’t exist. We have a tragic heroine, who forces Thomas to let her read, even arriving with a bag of props. She HAS to get the part. And of course Thomas will fall for Vanda as they read his steamy script. Right? 

Not necessarily. Yes, these elements are predictable, but they are precisely, deliberately predictable. Vanda’s brashness provides perfectly timed comic relief to some steamy situations, and requires the audience to constantly ask “is this what is actually happening? Is this Vanda or Vanda? Who is this person? Where are we? Are we situated in reality or fantasy?”

The performances in this production are brilliant. Miller does a magnificent job of rendering the poor acting skills a playwright might be expected to have, while Street absolutely steals the show. She so wholly possesses both Vandas that it is wondrous to watch her shift from one to the other. The set design from Debra Hanson perfectly exemplifies the tensions present in this play, while also anchoring a place for events to unfold. It is many spaces all at once, and also no space. 

Venus in Fur truly shines in the way it probes the boundaries of fantasy and reality while never really solidly remaining or defining what these may be. It is an insightful exploration of the tension between – between Vanda and Thomas, between submission and dominance, and yes, fantasy and reality. 

Run Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Venus in Fur runs until Oct 27 at the Bluma Appel Theatre.
Revived: To December 29

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