Friday 18 October 2013

Venus In Fur supplies laughs & lots more

In Ars Poetica Horace famously declared that literature has two purposes : prodesse et delectare -- to teach and to please. The David Ives script Venus In Fur now robust-in-delivery at ACT's Granville Island stage may not set out to teach much, but it sure delectares the heck out of us with a swack of put-on S-M hoopla. A night of mostly-feigned whippings, chains, bulldog collars, trussings and spiked leather boots is what you'll see and what you'll get. But in the process no small bit of perspective on sexual politics over the past 150 years -- a chunk of prodesse after all about the politics of gender -- underscores the comic riffs.

On one level, the play is almost trite and self-conscious: a play about two players practicing at playing in a play. On a psychosexual level, however, VIF is about power, dominance, submission and a whole other range of goofy human tricks -- including cruelty, verbal and physical -- that mark our species' tromp through life. Director David Mackay has coughed up the perfect R-rated comic fare for Vancouver in preparation for Hallowe'en -- plopping us for 90 consecutive minutes in a world where to know for certain when the costumes, games and shenanigans end and "reality" begins is ever up for grabs.

Plot overview : Playwright Ives creates a fictional playwright, one Thomas Novachek (Vincent Gale) who has written a script based on a 19th century Austrian eroti-novel Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (a.k.a."Masoch"). The novel's plot involves an aristocrat named Severin Kushemski who wills himself into sexual submission at the hands of lady Vanda Dunayev. The play opens at the end of a day during which director Novachek has auditioned some 35 women for the part of Dunayev -- vainly. Abruptly one somewhat-too-conveniently-named Wanda -- Wanda Jordan (Linsey Angell) -- washes in, blown through the door late-in-the-day by a thunderstorm. Novachek is bitchy. Jordan's name was not on the call-list and besides Thomas is late for a date with his fiancee. To capture his bad hair day, he's just yelled into his cell phone : "Whatever happened to femininity?" This to his "true love" in 21st-century time. Enough said. His karmic blast of pique foreshadows the schemes and themes of the rest of the play. 

When Novachek tries to brush her off, Jordan -- dressed in black leathers under a trench coat -- whines and wheedles and pouts and sulks like a ditz with lots of Fuck! and Thanks, God! But in the end Thomas surrenders, tellingly. There is something about this Wanda Jordan that's more than ditz & chutzpah. He lets her try out to be Vanda in the Dunayev role while he reads Kushemski's lines. In doing the audition schtick, Novachek and Jordan each jump in and out of their Masoch characters and nitter-natter back-&-forth:  What does this line mean? What is this character about, here? On the meta level, it's an intricate dance of power : does the director have the lead or the actress? When is Novachek being Kushemski, when is he just himself, the schmuck Thomas? When is Wanda being Vanda Dunayev, when is she Jordan? Who knows? Does playwright David Ives even know? It doubtless helps to be reminded, meanwhile, that the word "masochism" -- the melancholy erotic love of subjugation and dominance and sexual release therefrom -- was coined in 1886 by the Austrian psychiatrist Kraft-Ebbing, derived after his reading of Masoch's roman a clef, said Venus in Furs.

First impressions & character-take :  VIF is perhaps not genius play-writing, but it's closer than most fare we see locally. David Ives overlays adaptations from the Masoch script that "Thomas Novachek" has written with instantaneous flips back to the contemporary audition action. And it's actor Angell who is the centrepiece of his focus despite the fact that Gale is the play's protagonist. Angell's ability to shape-shift from somewhat scatter-brained but street-smart 2013 lipster to a 19th century dame a la Vanessa Redgrave is the reason to see this show not once but more. In doing so she mines the two scripts she's working from for pertinent observations about sexual repression in the Hapsburg empire and that of to-day. As Kushemski/Novachek, Gale is dynamic and forceful and utterly worthy, but no one! could match the magic that Angell inspires. Hers is a mix of juicy comic facials riddled with Aha! pronouncements about the sexism behind both scripts -- that men for all time have subjugated women but when they triumph doing so, they then blame women for creating men's self-inflicted miseries borne of bullying and repression. Yang quashes yin instead of blending with it harmoniously -- symbiosis be damned -- power is all. 

What happens, what doesn't :  The play-within-the-play -- the one about Kushemski and Dunayev -- is the perfect set-up  to reveal playwright Ives' truths. Kushemski recalls a beating when a youth by an aunt with a birchwood cane while he was restrained by two household servants. He subsequently has erotic dreams about the incident. Women, he says, supply men "delicious cruelty". He wants to live in a world where "there can be nothing more sensuous than pain or more pleasurable than degradation." Kushemski tells Dunayev he wants " have no will of my own, to be your property and vanish in your sublime essence." 

For her part Dunayev resists. She's an early feminist : "In our society, a woman's only power is through men. Her character is her lack of character. She's a blank, to be filled in by creatures who at heart despise her. I want to see what woman will be when she ceases to be men's slave, when she has the same rights as he, when she's his equal in education and his partner in work. When she becomes herself. An individual." 

After this speech, Wanda jumps out-of-character and remarks about the script "She's really ahead of her time, isn't she?" To which writer/director Novachek glibly replies : "Women's rights, yadda, yadda...".  Flip back to the Kushemski/Dunayev script. Vanda's lines are these : "Severin, don't you see? Don't you understand you'll never be safe in the hands of a woman? Of any woman?" Real-time Wanda snaps once again at Thomas: "Now this part is so sexist it makes me like scream. This is like some old Victorian Teutonic tract against Das Female. He forces her into a power play and then he blames her." 

At this the male ego of writer/director Thomas explodes : "How can you be so good at playing her, and be so fucking stupid about her? You fucking idiot! You fucking idiot woman. Yes. Idiot woman. Idiot actress." Wanda calmly but incisively replies : "It's a good thing there's no such thing as a goddess or you'd be fucked, buster." Aha! for the audience. S.s.d.d. is what Ives is driving at. The more men change the more they stay the same. Patriarchal values rule. Sexual dualities are still the norm. Or so men insist.

The end of the play brings first of all a sex scene induced by Wanda without any great amount of fondling or petting or squeezing or even deep-throating -- just some tame kissing. Still a hush falls over the house the scene's so breathtaking in its intimacy. Quickly followed by the climax, a role-reversal scenario that promises bloodshed and revenge to exquisite thunder and lightning. As mentioned, karma prevails. Enough said.

Production values : Sound designer Brian Linds replicates thunder as good as anything God ever provides Bard on the Beach during a summer squall. Maybe better. Set and lighting designer John Webber produces a functional set of rented warehouse faux brick and fluorescent lights, though it's a bit too orderly. The love seat enshrouded in covers, however, works both "real" and as symbol quite nicely. Costume designer Christine Reimer's duds for the characters in both scripts -- leathers to lace to gentlemen's smoking jacket to footman's frock -- are spot on. 

The key pieces : (1) Timing. Ives' remarkable talent in this script lies in how quickly his characters can jump from their roles acting out the "Masoch 19th-century script" back to themselves as 2013 "Novachek audition" participants -- Jordan as prospective actor Dunayev in his play and Novachek as writer/director reading the actor Kushemski's lines. (2) The patriarchal theme. Patriarchy underscores the action both then and now. Appropriately, its hypocrisy is all but neutered, if just for an eye-blink, in the final scene. (3) Linsey Angell. Nevermind the ironic catch of her real-life last name. Hers is a bravura performance of wit and subtlety that will make any viewer's heart race. Doubly impressive given her recent graduation from the Langara College Studio 58 program.

Who gonna like : Anyone who has ever acted or written for theatre or directed or done technical support will love the play / meta-play interaction of David Ives' script. People looking for something different to amuse & titillate & challenge their crania in ways a typical sit-com cannot will find their money well-invested. People who prefer straightforward tales with predictable thematic or stylistic tropes will find Venus in Fur a wee challenge, but should stretch their boundaries because they will agree the execution by actor Linsey Angell is just flat-out terrific. And Victor Gale is a mere half-gasp behind her. 

P.S. The drama-zine American Theater reports there are 22 productions of VIF either currently underway or scheduled for the '13-'14 professional season in USA -- more than any other play.


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