David Rabjohn, Associate Toronto Critic
Theatre on the Ridge should be congratulated for a fine summer festival encompassing drama, comedy, classics and Canadiana. It has been a pool of diversity as wide as the Toronto Raptors’ fan base. Their final production of David Ives’ ‘Venus in Fur’ deepens the pool even further with a witty production of a complex take on the battle of the sexes. Diverting from the traditional proscenium stage, this production uses a simple intimate space with seating on three sides. This choice of vehicle and platform by director Carey Nicholson offers the audience an immersive and challenging entertainment.
The two parts are solidly performed by Jack Copland as Thomas and Manon Ens-Lapointe as Vanda. Based on an 1870 erotic novella, Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, the play revolves around themes of sex, male and female power sharing and the blurred boundaries of what is real and what is not. As a play within a play, it also questions the very idea of acting – the dovetailing of person/actor/character.
Thomas, as a writer/director, is auditioning women for his female lead. He is frustrated by a string of failures and is ready to end his day until an unannounced actress bolts into the room and wildly demands his attention. Reluctantly, Thomas allows the audition to go forward without even disguising his disinterest. Abruptly the tone changes as the vulgar and absent-minded Vanda turns in a sparkling audition complete with a sensual Austrian accent. As the audition continues, a cycle of power shifting moves through the controlled and the controlling and the real and the unreal worlds. Thomas finally finds himself exhausted and humiliated as the play ends, as does the novel, with questions of the results of abnormal morbid fancies.
Jack Copland’s performance is stirring. His opening anger and frustration is neatly controlled, contrasting Vanda’s dervish behaviour. He carefully depicts the loss of control by moving from big movements to small. His long speech about whipping is accented with nervous hands wringing and flitting, belying his staged control. He tries, sometimes with success, to arrest Vanda’s advances with piercing eyes that somehow never blink. Another highlight is when his face completely changes with the opening salvo of Vanda’s amazing audition. Again, the small acting space and audience accessibility makes these moments even more profound. Mentioned earlier, Mr. Copland moves among the three realities of citizen, actor and character. This requires sharp timing and voice control. The east European accent at times seems inconsistent, but this might be strategic as Sacher-Masoch blurs realities.
An energized performance by Manon Ens-Lapointe as Vanda matches Mr. Copland’s skills. She begins with Lucille Ball mastery in comically struggling into a dress and hence into the 19th century. She springs comfortably from coquette to slave master enchanting and alarming Thomas. She further demonstrates comic skills when stopping in mid speech to comment on blocking or lighting. Charging through one stream of consciousness speech, she demonstrates Vanda’s deep intellect which would have seemed preposterous in her opening scene.
The SNL star Jon Lovitz would often bounce up from some inane situation and shout “acting!” This was used to cover up some foolishness or embarrassment he was experiencing. This idea of using acting as a cover for reality is what Thomas and Vanda experience – again the blending of person/actor/character charges this play. This requires the skills mentioned above and a delicate direction from Carey Nicholson.
Other contributions to this battle of the sexes and realities was the pathetic fallacy of thunderstorms or unsettling power outages. Cell phones startle us as intrusions of reality (this time from the stage, not the audience.) This particular preview performance was a matinee which challenged the production with day time light streaming through unguarded windows. The power of Mr. Copland’s and Ms. Ens-Lapointe’s performance overcame this challenge.
Venus in Fur – by David Ives. Theatre on the Ridge – Port Perry, Ontario.
Cast – Jack Copland, Manon Ens-Lapointe
Production staff: Carey Nicholson – Director, Designer
Stage Manager: Billy Keefer
Lighting design: Colin Hughes
Sound design: Victor Svenningson