Being familiar with a play before seeing it performed on stage can be a double-sided sword. Any preconceived ideas and expectations you have going in can either take you out of the moment of the play, or can delight you with the brilliance, creativity and insight of the artists in producing something fresh or even new to you, even though it’s still the same script.
When Bob Baker announced the Citadel’s 49th season last year, Venus in Fur (Jan. 17 – Feb. 8) stuck with me as one of the plays I was most intrigued about the company adding to their line-up. Presenting Venus in Fur – a sexy play exploring male-female interactions and power dynamics against the backdrop of a theatrical audition – seemed to be a way that the Citadel was addressing an increasingly older audience base and the need to appeal to younger audiences. To get a better understanding of the show, I read David Ives’ script and watched Roman Polanski’s 2012 film adaptation, which made me wonder how the Citadel would produce the show so that it stayed true to the sexual tension and power dynamics that are inherent in the script while still not being too risqué for its audience base.
Venus in Fur is a metafictional play – a “play within a play” – focusing on Vanda Jordan’s audition for Thomas Novachek to play the lead role in the play Venus in Fur, which he has adapted from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch‘s 1870 novel that inspired the term masochism. The play begins as Thomas’ (Jamie Cavanagh) complaints about his inability to find an actress for his play who’s sexy, articulate, and classically trained are interrupted by Vanda (Alana Hawley), who appears to be anything but those descriptors. Ostensibly brassy, blunt, uneducated, unmannerly and seemingly unprepared, Vanda is several hours late for her audition, rain-drenched, and generally in a foul mood.
At first glance Vanda doesn’t meet any of Thomas’ requirements, but after some cajoling and a lot of yelling, she eventually gets reluctant acceptance to proceed with her audition for the part of Wanda von Dunayev in Thomas’ play. Set in 1870, the play is about Wanda, a reluctant dominatrix in the making, and Herr Kushemski, a man with a burning desire to be enslaved by a woman in fur. After Vanda convinces Thomas to read opposite of her, as Kushemski, what happens next is a gradual shift in power dynamics – from director to actor, Kushemski to Wanda, Thomas to Vanda – which is both playful and tinged with a hint of something more dangerous. Who is Vanda, really? How did she get a copy of the entire script? How did she manage to memorize it just on the train ride over? How does she know so much about Thomas’ personal life and his fiancée Stacey? How did she just “stumble onto” the perfect period clothing made in the era the play takes place in when, at least when she first shows up, she doesn’t even know it’s set in the late 1800s?
When I read the script a few months ago, I was left reeling from the constantly shifting roles and power dynamics – they’re reversed, reversed again, and switched once more and by the time I reached the end of the play I was still left working it over until I had figured out what exactly happened. Venus in Fur is a unique play in that it has a very strong, complicated female character in Vanda. She’s multi-layered, complex and even at the end of the show you haven’t quite got her figured out. Sure, she’s a bit bumbling, but somehow she’s also completely in control of both Thomas and the audience, taking them on the same journey and revealing herself how and when she pleases.
Director James MacDonald has taken the play in the direction where the comedy was emphasized more than the psychological drama, often at Vanda’s expense. In the “About the Play” section of the program, it notes that Vanda “breaks character purely for the pleasure of going back into it.” And that’s where the bulk of the humour of this play lies. We laugh because we are shocked by how quickly Alana Hawley, as Vanda, changes characters and personas. From the refined and controlled Wanda to the 500 miles per hour, seemingly dumb but enthusiastic, Vanda, the audience got a kick out of it every time Alana changed characters on a dime. You can’t help but admire Alana for playing two completely different characters almost simultaneously and sympathize with Jamie Cavanagh as Thomas, who does a good job as the bewildered director/playwright/adapter who still tries to maintain some semblance of control.
It’s easy to get lost in the comedy of Venus in Fur and, for me, it overwhelmed the other messages in the show. Vanda is the type of strong female character that we don’t often find on stage. Looking past the characteristics she presents on the surface, she’s got a plan and it’s 10 steps ahead of Thomas’, she’s unapologetic, she’s hyper-aware of everything going on around her, and, despite her decision to try to hide it, she is very smart. But because we are constantly laughing at what she says and does, we take Vanda at face value and perhaps don’t see all of the more subtle traits that the playwright created in the character. To fully appreciate the more subtle themes of Venus and Fur, the audience has to be just as taken in by Vanda as Thomas is, and for me, the humour of the show undercut that. It’s hard to respect a character for her intelligence and power when you’re laughing at her for swinging from extreme to extreme, even when you know that swing is intentional.
Venus in Fur would have been a risqué piece for the Citadel to put on, not because the actors are in various states of undress throughout the show, but because it’s about power dynamics we don’t see on stage very often and losing yourself in a journey led by someone else. And being put through the same emotional journey as the characters in a play is a powerful thing for an audience. It means you can’t just walk out of the theatre and shake it off; it’s worked its way inside you and somehow you need to confront the journey it has taken you on. Of course, maybe after the laughter has subsided when everyone is at home or at the bar, the audience re-examines what happened in the play and adds up all of the little mysteries about Vanda and absorbs the implication that is at the climax of the play on their own, but I think toning down the comedy – just a bit – would have left more room for the other themes of the play to shine through during the production.