As the erotic comedy Venus in Furs opens, a male director has spent a long, frustrating day unsuccessfully auditioning actresses for his highbrow stage adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's scandalous 1870 novella that gave rise to the term sado-masochism.
Thomas is about to give up and go home when a mysterious and beleaguered young actress named Vanda shows up to read for the steamy part of the sexual seductress, although she initially seems to possess few of her attributes other than sharing the same first name. The pair act out the play-within-the-play and dredge up secret desires as they engage in risqué power games.
The 2012 Tony Award-nominated Venus in Furs by American playwright David Ives (The Liar, New Jerusalem) is the most produced play in North America this season and actresses all over the country are being asked about their own auditions that didn't go according to script.
Allison Brennan, who plays Vanda in the RMTC Warehouse season-starting production opening Thursday, remembers reading for the part of the young lover Helena in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"I don't know what I was thinking but I did this monologue and at the end of it I did a cartwheel," Brennan says during an interview in the lobby of the Tom Hendry Warehouse. "Here's a rule for any actor starting out: never, never do a cartwheel, it's never the right choice.
"Also, always wear underwear to an audition. You never know what's going to happen. I think I learned that the hard way."
Brennan, with her blond tresses cascading over her bare shoulders, radiates the sensuality required to portray the seductive Vanda, even off-stage. She proves just as mercurial and playful, announcing before the first question is asked that she has penned an off-colour limerick for her interviewer just as she has done with her cast mate Matthew Edison, local director Christopher Brauer and other members of the artistic team behind the 90-minute one-act show.
"I like to make up dirty limericks for people in shows," says the Toronto-based actress, who is making her Winnipeg debut. "I think people like to hear their name stuck into a limerick in a dirty, funny way."
Vanda demands a little bit of everything from an actress -- screwball klutz, cultured 19th-century noblewoman and scary siren. It also means she has to strip down to sexy black lingerie and stilettos.
"When I auditioned for the play, it's part of it, I just did it. In a way I'm similar to Vanda in that I'm not squeamish about my body," Brennan says.
Brennan was born in Ottawa, Ont., to a military couple who settled in Petawawa. After earning her BFA from the University of Ottawa, she moved to San Francisco to attend the American Conservatory Theatre, where she graduated in 2009 with her master's. She stayed in California trying to establish herself in film and television in Los Angeles, but continuing work-visa hassles made her return to Canada and the theatre.
"A while ago I had this bug up my ass because men got all the great parts," she says. "Hamlet and Hotspur have all these great speeches. I was like, 'I want to play the men's parts because they are better.' Then I learned that the women are just as strong as the men, although there might not be as many."
One of the female roles on her radar was Vanda, which she had first read in a New York City pizzeria with a fellow actor and together they were so astounded by the surprise ending that they read it all over again on the spot.
So earlier this year, Brennan was driving around Toronto with an actor friend who told her casually she was auditioning the next day for Venus in Fur for RMTC. She brought her car to a screeching stop because she had been coveting the role of Vanda. The actress had a copy of the play on her bedside table and knew the combination of the kinky story, economical two-person cast and bare-bones audition hall set would compel artistic directors everywhere to program it.
"My friend said when she was reading the script, she was thinking how would Allison do this," Brennan says. "I called my agent and said, 'please get me an audition.' But I was working so I crashed the audition early and asked to please see me. I squeezed my way in like Vanda."
Part of the charm of Venus in Fur is the way it pulls the curtain back to reveal what goes on behind the scenes in theatre's auditioning process. It also delves into role playing that keeps the audience guessing.
"The play will f with your mind," she says. "David Ives wrote to Christopher and said if people don't walk away going, 'What the f just happened,' you've done it wrong. People love it and there is a buzz about it because it's out of its mind."