Venus in Fur: A deliciously sexy start to Centaur’s 46th season

Photo Credit: David Hou

As theatre season openers go, you can’t do much better than a two-hander involving multilayered, smart, unpredictable dialogue, sizzling gender politics, and copious amounts of latex and S&M.

Venus in Fur doesn’t just start the Centaur’s 46th season on a sexy note; it sizzles for 90 minutes straight and leaves you wanting more. What a tease…

There’s no denying that the production benefits from the outstanding performances of both Rick Miller and Carly Street (I’ll get to them later), but it would all be for nothing if they didn’t have a wicked, “where the hell is this going?” plot to follow.

Intricately and beautifully written by David Ives, inspired heavily by the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel by the same name (where did you think the term masochism came from, darlings?), and sprinkled with shades of Euripides’ Bacchae (yes, the playwright’s a Yale graduate and it shows), it accomplishes the extremely difficult: to elevate the level of theatre going and still entertain.

The premise is simple enough. Thomas Novachek is the writer-director of a new play opening in New York City. This play-within-the-play is an adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The play begins with Novachek on the telephone complaining to his fiancée about the actresses who have so far auditioned for the lead character, Wanda von Dunayev. According to him, they all sound like “six-year-old girls on helium”. “Where are the women?” he laments. It’s late, it’s raining, he’s tired and he’s about to go home.

Suddenly, in walks Vanda Jordan. She’s loud, vulgar and tacky, is wearing very little clothing and has a thick New Jersey accent. She’s everything he hasn’t been looking for. But somehow she convinces him to let her audition for the part of Wanda, with him reading the part of Severin von Kushemski.

The minute Vanda starts reading everything shifts in the room, starting with the power dynamics of an audition. Everything about this play is so meta, because everything so cleverly makes reference to something else that has already taken place – either in the von Sacher-Masoch novella or in routine gender dynamics that play out every single day in the entertainment industry and everyday life, that it’s sometimes hard to follow. All the roles-within-roles require the audience to pay attention and read between the lines, but that’s just as much fun as watching Vanda railroad Thomas slowly into submission without him even realizing it until it’s too late.

Neither actor is new to this play. They have both starred in the Canadian Stage production, directed by Jennifer Tarver, which has already played Toronto twice. Street won the 2014 Dora Mavor Moore and Toronto Theatre Critics awards for best actress for her role as Vanda.

Actor, comedian and playwright Rick Miller is probably known to many Montrealers as the multi-talented guy behind such comedic solo hits as McHomer and Bigger Than Jesus, but here he willingly plays the straight man next to Street’s bigger-than-life Vanda. And he plays his role perfectly. Equal parts arrogance, confusion, and unaware male privilege, you’re just waiting for that moment when he realizes that role playing takes place both on and off the stage, and sometimes people aren’t what they pretend to be.

The playwright willingly admits that Venus in Fur turned into a bit of a Rorschach blot at one point and people will take what they will from it. But then again, that occurs with much of literature and art, and people’s perceptions of life for that matter. But there’s no escaping the reoccurring themes of cat-and-mouse seduction, domination, and ultimately subjugation. After all, it’s what makes this play so deliciously kinky.

But this production (and ultimately this play) lives and dies by the strength of its Vanda. Without Vanda being both this perplexing comedic presence and utterly seductive temptress, it would fall flat. Luckily for us, Carly Street is not only up for the challenge, she has all breathlessly on our knees by the time the curtain comes down.

Sex in live theatre is rarely sexy. It just feels too awkward, too staged, too forced. But that scene when Thomas is forced to put on Vanda’s thigh-high leather boots on, while she strikes an “I’m in charge here” pose on the divan Beyoncé would undoubtedly be proud of, you could hear a pin drop in the theatre. We all wanted to zip up that boot – or be the ones wearing it.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jennifer Tarver’s impeccable directing, assisted by the always excellent Andrew Shaver. The entire production is pretty flawless and adds to everything coming together for an excellent evening of theatre.

The production runs until November 9 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s extended. This is a hot one, people. It’s sizzling, sexy, and – most importantly – smart. I wouldn’t wait too long to nab tickets if I were you.

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Photo Credit: David Hou