In Roger Ebert’s review of Charlie Kaufman’s maddening but brilliant Synecdoche, New York,he wrote, “I think you have to see (the movie) twice. I watched it the first time and knew that it was a great film and that I had not mastered it.” I have similar feelings about The Guild’s latest production, Venus in Fur, playing at the Guild Hall until October 13.
Like Synecdoche, it plays with meta-narratives—stories within stories. Unlike Synnecdoche, it is about sadomasochism. It also happens to be a comedy.
The plot revolves around Thomas, a playwright/director adapting Venus in Furs (plural), a novel by 19th century Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (LVSM), for the stage. The book is about a Viennese aristocrat with a few kinks he needs to work out.
After a day of fruitless auditions for the female lead, Vanda, a cluelessly bombastic New Yorker, bursts through the door and insists on trying out for the character, who also happens to be named Vanda.
At first dismissive, Thomas becomes more intrigued when she begins reading for the role and turns out to be better suited for it than originally thought.
The play alternates between Vanda reading for the part (from the play Thomas has written, based on the book by LVSM), and Vanda breaking character to engage in flirtatious banter with the playwright.
In this way, the play tells both the story of the original novel and the story of Thomas trying to mount it as a play. Trippy.
With enough rumination on power-dynamics to confound Foucault, there is a lot of intellectual heavy lifting here, if you’re willing to put your back into it. But it is also very funny.
Rebecca Nelken and Roy Neilson anchor the Whitehorse production in a pair of strong turns. Nelken, in particular, keeps the audience tittering with a performance that starts out loud and stampy, but gradually turns darker and more nuanced. The moments when Vanda breaks character and returns to her Brooklyn accent never fail to amuse the audience.
Neilson doesn’t chew up as much scenery, but holds his own in the tête-à-têtes and shows surprising range towards the end.
The two actors punch their lines back and forth with the confidence that comes with knowing you have an able sparing partner. Neilson’s Thomas is by turns curious and enraged by the dimwit in front of him, and Nelken’s Vanda (who can’t remember the difference between “ambiguous” and “ambivalent”) seems just a little too dumb to be as dumb as she seems.
A typical exchange goes something like this:
“Am I insufferably pedantic?”
“Uh huh, but it’s kinda cute.”
The script, by David Ives, begins as a kind of odd couple sit-com but gradually reveals layers of depth, as intra and inter connections between the two strands of the plot pile up.
As intelligent as the script is—and Ives is certainly a smarty-pants—it could all turn into a humungous calamity in the wrong hands.
Enter Brad Dryborough, directing his second Guild production. In 2010 it was the dysfunctional family drama The Boys, and now this.
Dryborough does a good job of neatly delineating the tonal shifts in the play, which is essential to keeping the audience more or less on track. Without such deft helming, the play could devolve into amorphous slop.
But that doesn’t happen, which is good because there is too much material in Venus in Fur to be dismissive. Like Ebert, I know what I’ve seen is very good, but I’m not sure what the hell I just witnessed.
Peter Jickling is a Whitehorse playwright and the assistant editor of What’s Up Yukon