Like a kinky Educating Rita, David Ives’s reimagining of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s S&M classic has fast become a globally successful two-hander, winning a Tony Award and recently getting the film treatment from Roman Polanski. This touring Canadian Stage production, crisply directed by Jennifer Tarvey, demonstrates why theatre managements worldwide are going down on their knees in quivering gratitude.
It’s got just the right aggregate of transgressively sexy shades, laugh-out-loud one-liners, knowingly glib sexual politics and richly theatrical smartness to send audiences rising to their feet in rapture, post-climax.
Had Ives stuck to a straight adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, audiences might well have ended up mentally whimpering a safe word to make it stop. Enough of Masoch’s pompously fruity prose survives to suggest – as one of his characters observes – it really wouldn’t fly as a piece of theatre. Mercifully, Ives hit on the wheeze of transposing the material to a rehearsal room where a not-so-closet-misogynist director named Thomas has reached the end of his tether in search of an actress who can fill the leather boots of Masoch’s divine dominatrix, Wanda von Dunayev. Until, with a crash of thunder and a mysterious sparking of a fuse box, Vanda Jordan walks in, several hours late for her audition and ditzy to the point of appearing unhinged.
If you’ve seen The Fabulous Baker Boys, or even that Susan Boyle Youtube clip, you’ll hardly be surprised that Thomas’s initial dismissiveness turns to awe as Wanda does her thing. But Ives soon flips such overfamiliarity on its head by introducing a gathering storm of elemental unreality. Just who, or what, is Vanda? Why is her bag a bottomless source of props and costumes? And if, as she claims, she had no time to prepare, never read the original Venus in Furs (she only knows the Velvet Underground song), how come she’s able to compare and contrast book with play, while hardly glancing at her rehearsal script?
The storm raging outside the fictional theatre is an enjoyably campy clue that, cell phones and modern hang-ups aside, we’re in a world of Gothic artifice where fantasy role-play might well lead to a bloody, Hammer Horror-style reckoning. For all its heady philosophizing about power relations and Bacchic rites, though, the main key here is uproarious comedy, particularly given Carly Street’s turbo-charged, deliriously shape-shifting turn as Vanda.
It may be entirely predictable that power will be wrested from Thomas quicker than you can say “please, Mistress”, and it’s perhaps appropriate that Rick Miller lends Thomas’s macho swagger a kind of hollow brittleness from the off. But it does kind of make for an imbalance in what should at least seem to be a duel between two evenly-matched adversaries.
For long stretches of the play, Miller isn’t called on to do much more than react, as if doing an extended face palm to Vanda’s virtuoso daffiness. As delicious as Street’s outrageous verbal and physical tics are, it takes Thomas finally letting his guard down and abandoning himself to ecstatically wriggling beneath her heel for dramatic fire to catch, leading to an astonishing and quite sublime finale.
At ninety minutes without an interval, a dizzying round of reality shifts and reversals unfolding in real time, Venus in Fur makes for a brisk, thoroughly entertaining evening’s theatre. Tickets are selling fast, so do hurry if you want to avoid begging on your hands and knees like the pathetic worm you are.
Venus in Fur, directed by Jennifer Tarver, with Carly Street and Rick Miller. Continues through November 9 at Centaur Theatre. Box office : 514-288-3161.
Jim Burke is a playwright and arts journalist originally from England, now resident in Montreal. Amongst his plays are Cornered and an adaptation of Moby Dick. He has written plays for BBC radio. In England, he was Theatre Editor for the arts and lifestyle magazine City Life. Jim currently teaches creative writing at Dawson College’s Centre For Training and Development.