THEATRE REVIEW: VENUS IN FURS
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
08 OCT 2013
TORONTO - Every now and again, a piece of theatre hits the stage that reminds us that the operative word in theatre is ‘play.’ At their best, playwrights ‘play’ with plot, words and their audience, after all, and certainly, all the best actors ‘play’ their parts, even when working their butts off. And when all this play comes together, an audience is able to climb aboard and join the game. Canadian Stage’s production of VENUS IN FURS, currently gracing the stage of the Bluma Appel Theatre, is one of those theatre pieces.
It features a clever, thought-provoking and thoroughly modern script, courtesy of playwright David Ives, one that, even though it is built around it, it proves to be far, far more than a mere adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 19th century Venus im Pelz — the novel which gave the world “masochism” as counterbalance to “sadism.” It also features two strong players, kept more or less in balance by the increasingly sure-handed skills of director Jennifer Tarver.
Rick Miller plays Thomas, a playwright who has adapted Sacher-Masoch’s famous novel, while Carly Street plays Vanda, a brash and brassy New York actress who arrives just as Thomas is finishing a long and disappointing day of casting. That he sees in this latest arrival everything he loathes about the actresses he has so far seen is of little consequence to the force of nature that is Vanda. She steamrolls him into an audition wherein Thomas’ adaptation opens windows into something far more personal — and definitely more real — than the 19th century novel they are bringing to life.
The story unfolds on an intimate little set created by Debra Hanson and lit by Michael Walton, and while it might be considered a little on the romantic side for a 21st century rehearsal studio, there is no doubt it lends a certain romance to the proceedings. Miller, for his part, turns in a strong performance, marred only slightly by the fact that he plays his emotional cards a little too close to his vest, never letting us feel the heat until it is in full flame. Which makes it that much easier for Street to steal the show, seamlessly inhabiting a part filled with so many quicksilver character changes with such ease that one suspects that Mercury is as important here as Venus.
Finally, although it is marked with an almost giddy sense of play throughout, this is very grown-up work, challenging at every turn, evolving gender roles along with conventional notions of what represents the sexual norm. Ultimately, these are things to ponder after you’ve left the theatre, however. In VENUS IN FURS, as in few other productions, from lights up to lights down, the play (and the playing) really is the thing.