Venus in Fur, the emotionally sordid, sadomasochistic romp at the Centaur until Nov 9 is not only harrowingly funny, but it keeps us on our toes. The subject is sexual tension - sexual confusion and erotic role playing - it delves into the darkest recesses of sexual fulfillment. It helps to know that the play by David Ives is based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1869 novel of the same name. (He lent his name to the term masochism).
As the play opens in a spartan rehearsal hall, Thomas (Rick Miller), a weary playwright is working on his script based on Sacher-Masoch’s book. He has been holding auditions to cast the show, and is ready to quit for the day. As he is about to leave in barges Vanda, (the astonishingly Carly Street), dragging her tickle trunk behind her. She is loud, vulgar – a brassy dominatrix, not at all what he has in mind for the part. But a trapped in the theatre by a thunderstorm, Vanda sets out to show Tom she is above all an actress. And a good actress can play genteel, elegant and demure. She flirts. She teases. She whines. She begins to explore the boundaries of Thomas’s sexual comfort level and tests his confidence. She dons a Victorian gown and is transformed from the brassy broad into the cultivated character he has in mind.
It’s a wholly theatrical play, a two hander which explores fetishes and fantasies and depends on raunchy actorly artifice.
As Vanda critiques Tom’s script she gets into his head, which allows her to eventually degrade him and render him impotent with seductive energy. Whether as an actress or as a whore, Vanda well knows the objective in the bedroom or on stage is the same: to be an object of desire. The façade has changed with the costume, but her sexual power remains the same.
Carly Street, who won the Dora Award and the Toronto Theatre Critic’s Award as best actress, gives a standout performance. The multi-talented, multi-lingual, Rick Miller, (who entertained with his band after the show on opening night) is equally perfect foil. He is no less a magnetic force than she is. The two in tandem work so well that the audience becomes a part of the action - voyeurs eavesdropping on what makes intimacy intimate. There are no pat conclusions.
Director Jennifer Tarver “provoked by the notion that an idea, if pushed to the extreme, flips to its opposite,” has done a bang-up job. Debra Hanson’s set, props and costumes are perfectly unadorned and simple.
Working with imagination, intelligence, and two amazingly good actors, Tarver takes on a harrowing yet satisfying tour of a sexual battleground that leaves both characters apparently victorious even though both are wounded in action.
I haven’t seen Roman Polanski’s movie version of the play, but I doubt that Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric are any better than Street and Miller.