Photo. Maria Vartanova. David Whitely and Chandel Gambles.
There are those who will no doubt be attracted to a new Ottawa production of Venus In Fur by some of the hype surrounding it — the promise of titillating sexual mind games and the opportunity to ogle one of the characters in various stages of undress.
There will also be some who will insist on applauding David Ives’s Tony-Award-winning Broadway hit as no more than an entertaining sex comedy cheeky enough to probe some of the darker recesses of sado-masochistic culture. Indeed, it’s scarcely surprising that Venus In Fur is being produced all over the place these days — not always for reasons necessarily artistic. Sex sells — especially the naughtier brand that on the surface drives this play. So the guffaws and giggles that Plosive Productions is generating from the show now on view at the Gladstone are perhaps inevitable. But let it be noted that the laughter begins diminishing as the play reaches its creepy, identity-bending conclusion — and this reflects the virtues of Catriona Ledger’s production and the often brave performances of David Whiteley and Chandel Gambles.
It’s ironic that a play dealing with identity should be placing its own identity at risk. Also its integrity: after all this is a script that, in some hands, would have no higher purpose than to allow mindless theatregoers to indulge their jollies. Ives, whose fascination for matters of identity has also led him to prepare a new translation of Feydeau’s A Flea In Her Ear, is sometimes on thin ice here, his facility for triggering the easy laugh at odds with more serious dramatic concerns. Yet, at the end of the day, his integrity as a playwright remains intact. This a play of ideas as much of situation. It is, like his other works, a celebration of language. It’s funny, but often in a ghastly kind of way. And ultimately, you have to be pretty insensitive to its nuances not to find it unsettling.
David Whiteley portrays Thomas, a writer-director trying to put together a New York production of a new play based on a notorious 19th Century novel by Leopold
von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian writer whose very name inspired the coining of the word “masochism.” Thomas is at his wit’s end trying to find the right actress for the role of a woman who willingly enslaves and humiliates a male character who idolizes her. In Whiteley’s portrayal, the Thomas we first encounter is smug, arrogant, patronizing and chauvinistic. But we’re also getting glimpses of an unhealthy obsessiveness in connection with his casting dilemma: he’s imprisoned by a need to fulfil impossible expectations in finding a dream figure for the role. He is, we are starting to suspect, seeking a perverse form of wish-fulfillment.
Vonda, the brassy, ballsy, in-your-face flake who bursts into designer David Maglardy’s appropriately seedy audition room is not at first sight the answer to his dreams. In her performance, Chandel Gambles initially gives Vonda a ditzy sexual energy, sprouting profanities like bullets as she wrestles with a hostile umbrella, and unembarrassed about displaying her assets when she throws off her coat to reveal how little she’s wearing underneath. (She’s dressed for a role she covets — get it?) So yes, she’s a force of nature but by no means the kind of refined manipulator of the sexual emotions Thomas has in mind for his stage piece.
Yet it is intriguing to watch the perverse chemistry already at play in these early scenes. Whiteley’s Thomas — clearly affronted by the coarseness, vulgarity and ignorance of a woman who seemingly has no idea of the philosophical and aesthetic stakes inherent in the project — has no success in simply patronizing her and then trying to show her the door. Unsuited though she may seem for the role, she’s starting to get to him in some unfathomable way. When he agrees to let her read some scenes with him — despite her bubble-headed admission that she’s only just read the script while riding the subway — he’s unconsciously starting to capitulate to her power.
It’s director Catriona Ledger’s task to keep the play’s moments of comic, audience-pleasing vulgarity from subverting its greater virtues. Her production is uncompromising in moving to a genuinely disturbing conclusion, and it’s helped immeasurably by the shading which her two performers give their assignments. The production carefully keeps us aware of identity — especially sexual — constantly redefining itself. It’s not the first time we’ve seen such themes explored — witness Pinter’s The Lover or Ingmar Bergman’s Persona — but Ives is viewing them through his own highly personal prism.
When Chandel Gambles, as the impossibly vulgar Vonda, starts reading from the script and astonishingly shifts into the cultured yet intimidating body language and vocal cadences of Thomas’s 19th Century dream figure, electricity is in the air. A new kind of sexual authority, insinuating yet overpowering, is now on display. She’s taking charge and will ultimately reduce Thomas to a quivering submissive with a symbolic leather collar fastened around his neck.
Whiteley manages his character modulations with tact, while also heeding a text interested in far more than just sexual game playing. Language and its uses has always intrigued Ives as a playwright, and there are some witty and invigorating exchanges here: witness the way in which the two actors play verbal ping pong over the meaning of the word ambiguity. There is also the skill with which classical allusions creep in: Ives would like to provide the play with a classical context of sorts, and one can’t imagine any other dramatist with the nerve to introduce references to Euripides in a something like this.
Still, the end result is decidedly scary: at least that seems to be the ultimate aim of this production, notwithstanding the expectations of some who attend it.
Venus In Fur by David Ives
A Plosive Production
Gladstone Theatre to April 18.
Director: Catriona Ledger
Sets and Lighting: David Magladry
Costumes and Props: Vanessa Imeson
Sound: Steven Lafond
Vanda: Chandel Gambles
Thomas: David Whiteley