Venus in Fur is a powerful play that rocked the Broadway boat last year and has now come to Toronto. Directed by Jennifer Tarver and boasting an absurdly talented two-person cast of Carly Street and Rick Miller, this production of Venus in Fur is flexible and intelligent while remaining honest.

The 90-minute play takes place over several hours in a playwright’s office as he and a wannabe actress read the play he has just completed based on the erotic novel Venus in Furs. At first, she comes across as stupid and shallow, he conceited and overeducated, but the two of them share a chemistry that neither can deny. The whole thing begins innocently enough with the entrance of the actress, late for her audition. The assistant reader has gone home for the night, so she reads with the playwright.

Careful! This is where the magic starts.  What is initially a casual reading soon becomes much more as both characters sink so deep into the play and their characters that the lines between what’s real and what isn’t become very blurred indeed. Like the characters they portray, the actress and playwright play at a courtship that veers into the territory of troublesome dominance games, raising questions that have been asked by masters and servants, men and women since, well, forever.

The set is a piece of art in itself, making brilliant use of the enormous stage at Bluma Appel Theatre. The action takes place on a square of hardwood flooring at centre stage that takes up about a third of the available space. To the right and left, the floor is empty nearly up to the wings, where footlights serve as a constant reminder that this is theatre. Undisguised lights also hang on a lighting grid above the playing space, and these prove essential as the characters switch between play and reality.

The costumes also play an essential part of this transition, or lack thereof. The actress spends half the play in a stripper costume complete with corset and garters and the other half in an enormous cream period gown. The playwright, first in jeans and T-shirt, puts on a tailcoat and never takes it off. Actors are always told to build a character from the inside out, but in this case the externals correspond to the internals perfectly. The actress’s costume is especially important, serving as a metaphor for women in general as depicted in the play: cupcake on the outside, viper underneath. This is true of both her and the character she portrays, the starving artist and the society lady respectively, both concealing intelligence, wit, and a decent helping of cruelty.

Venus in Fur delves deep into issues of sex, dominance, and gender bias and explores them in profoundly disturbing ways. I haven’t been this riveted by sexual tension since I first saw Spring Awakening, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been so intrigued by violence. The play is a discovery for the actors, characters, and audience as everyone struggles with their morals, unable to look away.

Venus in Fur plays at Bluma Appel Theatre until October 27.

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