Comedy Dominates in Venus

The play is new. The book that inspired it is 142 years old. The song dates back to the Summer of Love.

The kinky proclivity all three works explore may be as old as time.

Venus in Fur, the David Ives play that opened Off-Broadway to much acclaim in 2010 before moving to the Great White Way a year later, is this year’s season-opener for the Guild Theatre.

Ives borrowed the title, and much of the thematic content, from an 1870 novella by the Austrian journalist-author, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, called Venus in Furs.

In 1967, The Velvet Underground released a Lou Reed-written song by the same name.

If the Sacher-Masoch moniker still resonates 117 years after the author’s death, it’s because pioneer psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing drew on it to coin the term “masochism” in his seminal work, Psychopathia Sexualis.

The idea of sexual domination, sometimes with painful side-effects, may seem like strange subject matter for a contemporary comedy.

But New York audiences who made Venus in Fur one of the hottest tickets in town might beg to differ.

Vancouver-based actor, director and filmmaker Brad Dryborough, who is directing the Guild production, admits he was surprised that Artistic Director Katherine McCallum was able to secure performance rights to the play so soon after its Broadway run.

“The rights are out, but they’re quite restricted. From my research, I believe there are 26 productions being done this year in the United States regionally,” Dryborough says.

“She also got the rights for Chicago for this season, which is also still quite restricted,” he adds.

“What she’s managed to succeed in doing is basically saying, ‘Look where we are. We’re not taking tickets away from the Arts Club in Vancouver or anything like that.'”

Dryborough, who had previously performed in several Ives one-act plays, says he was “really excited” when McCallum offered him the chance to direct Venus.

Two years ago, he made his Guild directorial debut with The Boys, written by his long-time friend and colleague, Kris Elgstrand.

“I think people on the whole will like this one better than they liked The Boys,” he admits.

The Boys really touched a nerve in some people, in terms of a family dynamic and how people communicate. This is more entertainment.”

The two-handed Venus in Fur is not quite a play within a play, but certainly a title within a title.

It concerns a playwright-director named Thomas Novachek, who is struggling to find an actress to play the female lead in his new play based on Sacher-Masoch’s best-known book.

The role is that of Vanda von Dunajew, a name borrowed from the dominatrix in the novella. In real life, the author’s embittered ex-wife later adopted the pseudonym Wanda for her tell-all book about their years together.

“Thomas, has had a little bit of success, but not that much,” Dryborough explains.

“Definitely he’s very strong in his opinion of what this play should be, and who these characters in this play are, and he is a little bit full of himself, and little too enamoured with his own ability.”

After a fruitless audition, the playwright-director complains on the phone to his fiancée that there are no 24-year-old actresses capable of doing the role.

“They all sound like little girls.”

As he is about to leave, a latecomer arrives by the name of (ta-da!) Vanda Jordan, a woman Dryborough describes as “a stereotypical ditzy, all-over-the-place actress who you don’t believe is going to be able to do anything”.

Thomas has no intention of casting her, and just wants her to leave. But she persists.

“And then we slowly learn that this is a very smart woman who definitely has an agenda and is not going to take ‘No’ for an answer.”

Dryborough studiously avoids spelling out the power struggle that ensues between Thomas and Vanda, but does provide some hints.

“You start to question, ‘OK, who is this girl exactly, and why does she know everything she knows, and why is she so good at playing this part?'”

Another hint lies in the director’s admission that the actress is onstage for most of the play “with a corset and garter and … “

While the play has scenes of a sexual nature and carries a language warning, there is no nudity.

“It definitely has an edge to it, but it doesn’t really push that boundary. Some people are going to get what’s going on at a deeper level, and some people are going to get the humour.”

Dryborough is less guarded about the two local actors he’s working with, Rebecca Nelken and Roy Nielson. Both bring professional training to their first Whitehorse appearances.

“They read together when I auditioned them. The enthusiasm and energy that they brought in was just so compelling. You could tell the work they had put into their audition, they both took direction so well, and were just so open. So it’s been great.”

Venus in Fur runs from Thursday, September 27 to Saturday, October 13 at the Guild Hall, with a preview performance on September 26. Show time is 8 p.m.

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