About to enjoy a play full of power dynamics, S&m and an incarnation of the ancient goddess of love and lust, I found myself seated beside a goddess of another sort. Petite, elegant and of a certain age but not showing it, she was clad in a bold leopard skin print blouse under a smart black jacket, she also sported a midnight ink-coloured bob and matching Edith Head-esque glasses. Though apparently a Canstage regular she was not pleased with her seat, there was not enough room to stretch her gams. "It's not as bad as the Royal Alex," she informed me. "But nowhere near as nice as the Princess of Wales. Can you believe it? The most beautiful, comfortable theatre in the city and they're going to tear it down. The one in North York is nice too but it's always empty. Say what you want about Garth Drabinsky but he made Toronto a theatre city. My sister is an actress and she's had to leave." The entire time she was monologuing vaguely in my direction she was scanning her program and its notes. "Oh," she exclaimed upon reaching the paragraph describing the play's origins in the "classic sadomasochistic tale Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, "I didn't realize that that's where that word came from. Masoch, masochist." She was still pondering when the lights went down for Venus in Fur and from then on both of us were too engrossed to chat further.
Venus in Fur is a riff on sexual power dynamics, the power dynamics within the theatre community, and feminism. It is also extremely funny. The comedy is sly and dry and is a loaded weapon in the talented hands of Carly Street and Rick Miller. Some of the laughs were uneasy - it was a very straight-appearing and of a certain age audience who would not appear to be S&m savvy or at least wouldn't want to appear so - but most of the laughter was of the hearty uncontrollable kind. The theatre references got the biggest laughs - it was opening night so theatre workers and lovers were in the majority - but also gave credence to the plot (an actress auditions for the part of the dominant Vanda in a play based on Venus in Fur) which merely exists to hold the ideas aloft. That the finale makes all the laughs that came before choke in the audience's throat is a wonderful bonus.
Carly Street is a true revelation as she switches from street-wise and deceptively dim sex bomb to the sophisticated but naive Vanda, and then to a female incarnate. She creates three distinctly different characters who exist simultaneously yet never misses a beat or leaves any questions, beyond the deliberate ones in the text, about who is who. A lot of the comedy comes from the shock of the fourth wall not just being broken but shattered and the pieces kicked to the side. That she is totally at ease clad in either full-on Bettie Page gear and sky-high heels or 17th century ruffles (and looking ravishing in both) gives the character blitzkrieg an extra wallop.
Rick Miller is an able foil and plays the straight man to Street's virtuosics until it is his turn to shine. That the role reversal initially garnered vaguely homophobic laughs instead of admiration is the fault of the audience but Miller just ramps it up and scorches sexual stereotyping into ashes. If the play itself were not so involving, thought-provoking and flat-out entertaining, it would be possible to just sit and admire two actors giving it all and at the top of their game.
The set is stark, evocative and very dramatic. It affords Street an entrance to die for and the various moods, much like the actors, are established with the flick of a switch. The huge skylight that would dwarf two less talented performers winds up becoming a frame that reflects their oversized but believable emotions.
No play exists in a vacuum and it is impossible to see Venus in Fur without dragging along the cultural references of 50 Shades of Grey and Pig. More power to 50 Shades for exposing a sexual variation and pleasure to the mainstream and to Pig for being so brutally honest and insightful about gay (but universal) sexual dynamics. Venus in Fur straddles the zeitgeist and promises the harmless titillation of 50 Shades before diving as deeply as Pig (though in a resolutely heterosexual fashion and from a feminist viewpoint) into just what sexual drive and kinks can mean. The woman next to me laughed as deeply as I did and leapt to her feet for a heartfelt standing ovation - Street and Miller are extremely deserving of ovations - and I am extremely curious about just what she was inspired to do later that night. The Princess of Wales theatre may just remain standing so that she can luxuriously stretch her gams while enjoying a Toronto theatre scene that Venus in Fur proves to be alive, kinky and kicking.
Venus in Fur continues until Sun, Oct 27 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front St E. canadianstage.com