Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review: (Winnipeg) Venus in Fur

Allison Brennan, Matthew Edison (photo by Dylan Hewlett)
Topping from the Bottom
How do I know when the scene is over?
by Edgar Governo

When we go to the theatre, we are consenting as an audience to a particular dynamic with those who are putting on a performance, and this is unique in theatre compared to works of fiction in other media because the performers are there in the space with us as this dynamic unfolds--we give ourselves over to a suspension of disbelief while the cast is aware of us.

Although this is rarely negotiated explicitly, we attend a specific play with certain expectations, just as we do with a new partner, a new relationship--or a new kink scene. When a play does not meet our expectations, that can be a great thing (discovering an evocative piece of art is like discovering something new that turns you on) or it can be upsetting, whether we are merely disappointed or because we feel that what we have implicitly negotiated (through a play's advertising, for instance) has been violated. Some common examples of this are when a play turns out not to be in its announced genre and when a show unexpectedly includes audience participation; the latter can be especially unsettling because it also violates an understood boundary between performer and audience.

it would generally not be considered acceptable to include people who hadn't consented to your kink

BDSM relationship dynamics are (ideally) much more explicitly, and carefully, negotiated between all of the partners involved. If you're going to be a slave, it's only because you want to be (even if a literal contract is relatively uncommon), and the idea of Risk-Aware Consensual Kink means that everyone taking part knows what is at stake, knows what could potentially go wrong, and knowingly consents to whatever is going to take place. For those reasons of consent, it would generally not be considered acceptable to include people who hadn't consented to your kink (a common criticism of scenes in public places, as disruptive as a play bursting out in public where none was expected) or to manipulate someone into a submissive position without that person's agreement.

Venus in Fur, the acclaimed play that has gone from Broadway success to Roman Polanski film to opening the Royal Manitoba Theatre Company Warehouse season, explores all of these elements that theatre and kink have in common--both consisting as they do of scenes with overlapping elements of roleplay and performance. The creative process in theatre is intended to be collaborative, but roles such as director, playwright, and actor are meant to be clear (even when they overlap), as is the boundary between performance and real life. Within this play, however, Vanda Jordan (Allison Brennan) pushes and ultimately subverts that tacit agreement in the course of auditioning for the lead role in an adaptation by Thomas Novachek (Matthew Edison) of Venus in Furs, the 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch which helped coin the term "masochism."

Sacher-Masoch ended up entering into a real-life contracted relationship where he acted as slave to a baroness

Vanda does this by slowly shifting and then overturning Thomas's direction--she ignores his blocking, she improvises lines, and she adds a new scene to the beginning of his play, thus establishing her own tone and worldview overtop of his within his initial creation. She also explicitly calls out Thomas on the extent to which his play blurs with his reality, assuming that it reflects his unsatisfied desires as much as Sacher-Masoch's work reflected his. Sacher-Masoch ended up entering into a real-life contracted relationship where he acted as slave to a baroness, while the fictional Vanda works to take the same sort of relationship from the even more fictional Vanda of Thomas's play and apply it to Thomas himself by using his name as that of the fictional servant as they continue the audition.

These multiple layers of fiction and reality, struggling for which one will exert control, is at the heart of Venus in Fur. There is a surprising amount of broad comedy for a play with such charged subject matter, but Brennan is particularly good at convincingly switching tones in a wide range between goofy and seductive. This seemed jarring at first, but that playfulness with the material serves to remind us that sex and kink should still be enjoyable, even when the kink is degradation.

Theatre doesn't have safe words to abruptly end a scene if needed, and both characters in this two-hander fall into some problematic territory because they rarely talk directly about what is going on between them or how their dynamic is changing as events unfold in real time, sublimating everything through the audition process and the exchange of dialogue between playwright David Ives's version of Thomas Novachek's version of Sacher-Masoch's characters. It would be easy but dangerous to say that if Thomas didn't want this power exchange to happen, he could've and should've stopped it, as this is a common apologist defence of those who sexually take power from others without their consent.

Only the ending is a step too far for these switches, with a sudden twist that seems insufficiently foreshadowed and thus doesn't play fair with the established rules--ironically, even this play can't entirely avoid introducing something which hadn't been agreed to or negotiated with its audience. Thomas and Vanda go to places that are neither safe nor consensual, but the final moments of Venus in Fur don't even feel sane.

Venus in Fur runs to November 9.

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