In staging David Ives’ dark sex comedy Venus in Fur, Milwaukee Repertory Theater joins the ranks of dozens of other regional theaters across the country. According to American Theater magazine, Venus is the most-performed play in American theaters this season. A whopping 22 productions were scheduled in 2013, according to the magazine’s survey.
The two-person play opened on Broadway in 2011, with actor Nina Arianda winning the Tony Award for her performance as Vanda. In the Rep’s production, Greta Wohlrabe essays that role – a character who swings back and forth between “ditzy actress auditioning for a play” and the play’s seductress.
Vanda is a tough role for even a seasoned actor to pull off, much less an actor who needs to be 20-ish and voluptuous (Wohlrabe certainly fits that bill, at times rocking a skin-tight black bustier created by Rachel Laritz). Tempting and manipulative, Vanda employs whatever trick she can conjure to conquer the play’s director, Thomas (Reese Madigan), and win the role.
As the play begins, it’s early evening in a seedy audition hall. Overhead fluorescent lights glare down on ancient brick walls, a desk and a faded, tattered divan. Thomas is on his cell phone, complaining to his girlfriend about all the actors he’s seen that day. None of them, in his opinion, even comes close to the mark.
“I need a woman who can pronounce the word ‘degradation’ without needing a tutor,” he moans.
A clap of thunder is heard as Vanda nearly topples into the room. With liberal use of four-letter words, she describes her harrowing trip across Manhattan in a violent storm. Although Thomas sternly informs her he is in no mood for more auditions, Vanda cajoles, wheedles and cries until he relents.
As the audition begins, Thomas plays the male role: a real-life, 19th-century author who coined the term “sadomasochism.” His 1870 book is called “Venus in Fur.”
Wohlrabe is maddeningly funny as she frequently goes “off character” to make observations or ask Thomas a question about the play. “It’s a play about S&M porn, right?” she asks at one point.
Thomas responds in a frosty tone: “It’s a serious novel.”
The play’s meaning becomes less important once the actor and director establish their characters. They switch roles at one point, with Madigan giving a convincing performance as Thomas’ notion of Vanda. They begin improvising, not knowing exactly where their dialogue will lead.
As Thomas, Madigan successfully walks a tightrope. He must be strong-willed and sexy, but also sensitive and vulnerable. He must be securely attached to his girlfriend – at least until Vanda intervenes. Most importantly, he can’t make Thomas seem creepy, effeminate, or extremely sexist. Madigan accomplishes his goal with astonishing aplomb.
Playwright David Ives (All in the Timing) tantalizes the audience as much as he does Thomas in this funny, sexy show. Director Laura Gordon skillfully maintains the sexual tension throughout the play’s 90 minutes.
The actors are well matched as they balance the give-and-take that Venus requires.
With the help of Scott Davis’ realistic-looking set and Aimee Hanyzewski’s increasingly seductive lighting (once the fluorescents are turned off), this production of Venus in Fur would be tough to match in any regional theater across the country.
For the adventurous theatergoer, this show is a dazzling delight.
Note: Although the play is all in fun (all foreplay and no action), it’s unsuitable for children.