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Actors David Whiteley and Chandel Gambles in Venus in Fur. Phto courtesy of The Gladstone Theatre.

Venus in Fur is a sex comedy turned on its birch-switched bottom.

By Brian Carroll on April 13, 2015

Kinky? Serious? Dramatic? Comic? Suspenseful? Warped? Disturbing? Playful? Political? Role-bending?

All of the above?

Venus in Fur is a sex comedy turned on its birch-switched bottom. Don’t come expecting a frothy farce like Noises Off.

Yes, there’s a scantily clad attractive woman. Yes, there’s a pedantic tight-assed frumpily dressed man. Yes, there’s a play within a play. But that’s where the resemblance to a standard sex comedy ends. For we soon discover that little is as it first appears. A battle of wits emerges and the audience must follow multiple suspenseful twists and turns to discover what is really going on: in the play, in the play within a play, in the telephone conversations with characters offstage.

Who is in control? And why?

A director/playwright is in despair. Thomas Novachek (David Whiteley) is trying to cast the female lead to his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs. He sees this as a literary classic from 1870 that is misunderstood in the present day. Thomas has auditioned over 30 actresses, none of whom understands his vision of the true meaning of male-female relationships in his adaptation.

Enter Vanda Jordan (Chandel Gambles), hours late for her audition, woefully underprepared, coat and broken umbrella drenched from the rain storm outside. Vanda begs Thomas to let her read for this part. Thomas, having sent the male reader home, wants none of it. He’s exhausted from the day’s disappointments, but she’s too dim (or desperate) to take no for an answer. Fatigued, Thomas acquiesces.

After a series of warmup exercises, Vanda delivers her first lines. She switches flawlessly from her New York argot to an upper-class Mittel European accent and delivers her lines with emotion and meaning that makes Thomas (and us) stare in wonder … till she reminds him that he must read the male lead’s lines.

Who is she? How does she bring such insight to this first read-through? Thomas and the audience snap to attention.

Vanda occasionally steps out of Thomas’s female lead, Wanda von Dunayev, to ask Thomas for direction or background, then slips back to address Thomas’ male lead, Severin von Kushemski. She also begins to direct Thomas’ reading of Severin’s lines. Who is the director? Who is the actor?

Were this all played straight, it would be snoozeville by now. Instead Gambles and Whiteley take turns at fine comedic moments that sparkle in the seriousness of the play within a play. Gambles’ manner of getting into and out of her 19th century white dress is worth the price of admission. Whiteley’s pedantic bumbling as the self-aggrandizing Thomas is a fine satire on self-important playwrights and directors.

One of the delights of this performance are knife-edge changes of characters and roles. Gambles and Whiteley switch instantly between Vanda and Wanda, between Thomas and Severin, without skipping a beat.

Now the audience must decide. Who is dominant and who is submissive? Who is in control? Who is auditioning who? Who has the position of power? Who is writer? Who is collaborator? Who is dramaturge? Who has the upper hand?

And finally, who is telling the truth?

Chandel Gambles is a revelation. Her switches between bumbling incompetent, dominatrix, submissive, scantily-clad modern New Yorker and 19th century upper class woman are precise and crystal clear.

David Whiteley also surprises. He has built a reputation for comedy roles and for unimaginative pedants. Under Catriona Leger’s direction, he shows that he can also handle serious drama and eroticism just as well.

Director Leger shows a deft hand, changing the dynamics between the two actors with seamless fluidity.

This mature adult production isn’t a show for everyone. Some of the explicit sado-masochistic imagery will be too strong for some tastes. As well, not everyone will appreciate the satire and the thrust and parries of gender politics.

That said, the comedic touches built into this play provide the spoonful of sugar for the many insights into a wide variety of gender roles.

The quick character and role changes onstage, plus the suspenseful plot twists, make for a highly entertaining evening. Though not one for the faint of heart.

Venus in Fur by (PL?-sive) Productions is playing at the Gladstone Theatre. Tuesday to Saturday 14-18 at 7:30PM. Matinees Saturday April 18th at 2:30PM. Adult tickets are $34 (including HST). Senior tickets are $30. and Student/Artist/Unwaged tickets are $20.