Thursday, January 22, 2015

Theatre: Venus in Fur

We went to see Venus in Fur not knowing what to expect, having only heard that it was an acclaimed "sex-comedy" that was brought back to the Canadian Stage Company for two consecutive seasons due to popular demand.  What we found was a complex, erotic, psychological play involving a cat and mouse power struggle whose "story-within a story-within a story" format had so many layers that it made our heads spin.
See if you can follow this ... We watched the play Venus in Fur written by David Ives about a playwright/director who is holding auditions for a play adapted from the 1870 novella about sadomasochism and gender roles called Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which also features a "story within a story" structure and was originally inspired by 16th Century paintings by Titian of the Goddess Venus wrapped in furs.

Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs begins with the framing story of a narrator describing a dream to his friend Severin, about the Goddess Venus wrapped in fur telling him that a woman's cruelty increases a man's desire for her.  Severin relays his own experiences of wanting to be dominated by a woman and explains how he was cured of this fetish. 

Like the narrator, Severin was fixated on a marble sculpture of the Goddess Venus wrapped in fur.  His obsession is transferred to the beautiful widow Wanda von Dunajew, who he sees as the Venus incarnate.  When she will not agree to marry him, he instead convinces her to sign a contract making him her slave. Reluctant at first, Wanda eventually comes to relish dominating and abusing Severin, treatment which he both loathes yet desires.  Severin reaches his breaking point when Wanda falls in love with another man and encourages her new lover to mistreat Severin as well.  This final humiliation cures Severin of his yearning for female subjugation.

The premise of Venus in Furs led to the coining of the term masochism and was likely inspired by Sacher-Masoch's own life.  According to Wikipedia, Sacher-Masoch also entered into a contractual agreement with his mistress Baroness Fanny Pistor, making him her slave for 6 months and dictating that Pistor wear furs while dispensing her cruelty.  Some years later, Sacher-Masoch's wife used the name Wanda von Dunajew from his novella as a pseudonym to publish her memoirs.

David Ives' Venus in Fur wraps a modern-day framing story around Sacher-Masoch's play, drawing parallels between the characters in each narrative.  Ives' play opens with director Thomas Novachek lamenting that none of the actresses that he auditioned were right for the role of Wanda von Dunajew (which Ives spells as Vanda von Dunayev) in his adaption of the play Venus in Fur (note the singular "fur", which Ives' felt sounded better than the plural).  Thomas is about to leave for the evening when in bursts the coincidentally named Vanda Jordan, whom he deems to be loud, crass, vulgar and completely wrong for the role.

Despite his misgivings, Vanda harangues Novachek into letting her audition, with him reading the role of Severin.  To his amazement, she is perfect for the part.  When playing Vanda von Dunayev, she transforms into a refined, demure, 19th Century lady in voice, manner and disposition.  Curiously, she seems to knows every line of the play by heart and has brought the exact period costumes befitting the roles of Vanda and Severin.

While reciting their lines, Thomas and Vanda frequently break character to discuss and debate aspects of his adaptation.  The talented actress Carly Street switches between her roles as the two Vandas with rapid-fire dexterity. It was amazing to listen as she flipped back and forth from the silky-smooth, dulcet tones of Dunayev to the jarring, pointed voice of Jordan, sometimes in mid sentence.

At the start of the audition, as the director who can grant Vanda the job she so desperately craves, Thomas holds all the power.  But as Novachek becomes more and more enamoured by Jordan's pitch-perfect embodiment of Vanda von Dunayev, the balance of power begins to shift, to the point where she is threatening to leave and he is begging her to stay.  Gradually Vanda starts directing Thomas instead, and even convinces him to improvise a new opening scene where Venus comes to confront Severin, who defiantly rebuffs the Goddess.  This sets up the possibility that Vanda von Dunayev is actually Venus in disguise, coming back for revenge.

Jordan challenges and emasculates Novachek both personally and professionally.  When Thomas interrupts the audition several times with phone calls to placate his awaiting fiancee, Vanda implies that he is hen-pecked and belittles his "safe, bland" relationship. She accuses his adaptation (and also the source material) of being misogynistic, sadomasochistic pornography with elements of child abuse.  Through pure force of nature, Vanda eventually takes charge of the audition, convincing Novachek to switch roles.  By having Thomas play Dunayev, Vanda proves to him how his play is "degrading to women .. Just look at you.  Maiden in distress.  A mass of quivering feminine jelly."¹

As Vanda's power and dominance reaches its peak, forcing Thomas into total submission, both he and the audience start to wonder who this woman actually is?  Suddenly, the prevalence of claps of thunder and flickering lights throughout the show takes on a new meaning.  And when Vanda pulls out a real fur stole from her bag, our suspicions are confirmed.

David Ives has written a fascinating play that succinctly captures the essence of the novella Venus in Furs, while wrapping it with a "meta-story" that acts as a contemporary mirror to Sacher-Masoch's work.  I found it particularly clever how Ives used a similar turn of phrase in both the inner and outer stories, drawing further parallel between them.  At one point, Severin calls Dunayev an individual, to which she replied "A man usually says that to a woman whose individuality he is about to undermine".¹  Later on, Thomas tells to Jordan that she is a "magnificent creature", which she rejoins with "A man usually says that to a woman whose magnificence he's about to undermine".¹

The set for the one-act play is sparse with just a few pieces of furniture that seem dwarfed by the relatively large "stage" of the Berkley Theatre.  One of the main props is a velour chaise lounge that seems suggestive of the proverbial "casting couch"–that symbol of sexual power that directors typically hold over young ingenues.  In the Q&A session following the play, Carly Street conveyed the interesting fact that Venus started out as the Goddess of Fate and Judgement and it was only through time that she became known as the Goddess of Sex and Love... another example of the sexualization of a female entity.

 ¹ Quotes from David Ives' Venus in Fur
** Photos of the play Venus in Fur by David Hou - and courtesy of Canadian Stage 

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