If Venus in Fur, the huge popular success of a play by David Ives, were to have been written with the dinner theatre circuit in mind, it might very well have been called something like Naked Audition, or The UnderstudyÕs Underwear or perhaps just plain Girdles and Garters to get the publicÕs attention. And to be sure, there are elements of dinner theatre humor and sexiness within the construction of this play-within-a-play that work every time, regardless of the venue.
For example the set up: itÕs a dark and stormy night (literally with lightning and everything), the woman who plays the role of Vonda, the actress auditioning for a role in the adaptation ofVenus and Fur, the famous German novel of eroticism written in the 19th century, shows up late after everyone else in the theatre except the director has gone home. She would have to be either very early or late. And she needs to get into her underwear quickly because thatÕs how these things work. Anticipating this, the playwright has the actress auditioning for the role of the dominatrix, Vonda, very, very committed to wanting the role and already assembled in her best 19th c. lingerie underneath the raincoat she is wearing so that within minutes of her entrance, va va voom, we are off and running with this casting couch power drama and homage to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), the first writer to scrupulously document his experiments with the sensuality of submission, i.e. masochism.
By the way, IÕm not at all disparaging dinner theatre sex farce here, IÕm just saying there are certain conventions that need to be respected and Mr. Ives understands all of this. In fact, he does for the stage very opportunistically what 50 Shades of Grey, is currently doing in novel form. The latter being far more explicit in its subject matter than is this stage play. No matter, Venus in Fur is the most popular play of the moment in North America in terms of productions (numbering 22) and Toronto is no exception. CanStage has just announced that the run has been extended through December 29th and, for all of you voyeurs out there, the show is moving into the more intimate space at Berkeley Street Theatre in the very near future.
But I would be remiss here to put down the deserved success of Venus in Fur. The play is, for the most part, well written although not without its longueurs. Where this particular production strikes gold is with the performance of Carly Street as the actor auditioning for the role of Vonda. Ms. Street is all Brooklyn accent and street (no pun intended) smarts when she first enters, carrying with her all of the anxious insecurities and tough skin of a young actor who really wants to work and really wants to win this leading role in a new play. The contortions she puts herself through are hilarious. We really do feel for her. And when she takes off her raincoat, we really do look at her. When the character known as Thomas (played by Rick Miller), who is the playwright-director casting his production, asks her to read from the script, Street seamlessly segues into the nuanced and sophisticated dominatrix who immediately captures Thomas and leads him toward the playÕs heated fan inducing finish, which more than one critic has described as a reversal on David MametÕs misogyny in Oleanna.
Although Thomas is more of a thankless straight man kind of role next to the flashy mood swings of Vonda, Rick Miller doesnÕt let any of this tie him down (so to speak). He plays the role vigorously to perfection and in the process makes StreetÕs work easier.
The real director of this play, Jennifer Tarver, is not the egotistical chauvinist portrayed by the make believe director, Thomas. On the contrary, Ms. Tarver is insightful and assured as she gradually tightens the knots of the plot in effect as well as metaphor.
It is a bit ironic that Venus in Fur is the hit of the CanStage season to date. Artistic director Mathew Jocelyn went into the marketplace of American plays doing well in New York last season and secured the rights to the show for his theatre in Toronto. This is not at all unlike what his predecessor Marty Bragg, was often criticized for and what Mr. Jocelyn pledged he would change in favor of more intellectually challenging works drawn from the European repertoire and elsewhere - especially Canada (Robert LepageÕs eagerly awaited Needles and Opium, opening at CanStage this week a case in point). But box office numbers donÕt lie, and Canadian Stage can be congratulated for smart programming as well as local producing in bringing together Tarver, Street and Miller for this outstanding production.