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The Rousuck Review: "Venus in Fur"

Katie Ellen Simmons-Barth

Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews "Venus in Fur" at Rep Stage in Columbia. The production runs through October 19.

The Rousuck Review: "Venus in Fur" at Rep Stage.

Anything can happen on a dark and stormy night. In David Ives’ play, “Venus in Fur,” a theatrical audition turns into a fascinating -- and dangerous -- battle for power.

An actress who calls herself Vanda Jordan comes barreling into an audition. She’s hours late and swearing a blue streak – about the rain and the subway getting stuck. The director insists auditions are over for the day. But she gets her audition – with him reluctantly reading the opposite part. That’s the play’s first shift in power.

The audition is for a stage adaptation of a 19th century German erotic novel. The term “masochism” was coined for its author.

At Rep Stage in Columbia, where “Venus in Fur” is receiving a vigorous, hang-onto-your-seats production, Kathryn Tkel plays Vanda Jordan with a brash New York accent and an attitude to match. ElanZafir plays the director and author of the adaptation – a man who thinks he’s in charge.

Vanda is a lot smarter and more enigmatic than she first appears. She happens, for instance, to have learned the entire – supposedly unavailable – script, and she’s conveniently brought along a bag of period costumes.

Director Joseph W. Ritsch has cast Kathryn Tkel against type. In a play that’s partly about casting, it’s a daring and rewarding choice. Tkel’s long hair cascades down in curls, framing her pert, sweet face. Her Vanda Jordan looks like innocence itself. But is she?

With the play’s two actors each portraying a theater artist and a sometimes dominant, sometimes submissive, character in the play-within-the-play, power changes hands repeatedly. Ritsch directs these changes so that some are subtle and others are as bold as the thunderclaps booming outside the studio window.

The action folds back in on itself, keeping you guessing what’s real and what’s artifice. At one point, when reality seems to overtake the play-within-the-play, even Tkel, as the actress, says: “I don’t think we’re talking about this play anymore.”

When she’s the character in the play-within-the-play, Tkel appears more refined, contained; when she’s the actress auditioning for the role, her gestures and speech become broader, bigger, looser. But she’s always outspoken – and captivating.

Elan Zafir is more restrained in both of his roles, though his emotions run a full gamut. As the director, his reaction to Vanda mirrors that of the audience. He’s stunned, put off and drawn to her – and so are we.

The power struggles in “Venus in Fur” take place on several levels. Besides the obvious struggle between actress and director, there are struggles between male and female, dominatrix and masochist, and the characters in the play-within-the-play. There may even be a struggle on a mythological level -- playwright Ives leaves that for the audience to decide. It’s just one of many intentionally confounding elements.

Director Ritsch and set designer Daniel Ettinger add yet another level. They seat the audience on opposite sides of a runway-style stage. Not only can we see the action on stage, we also have a clear view of the theatergoers across the room; we have been cast in the role of voyeurs. Are the actors performing for their pleasure or ours? Who’s in control? Rep Stage’s production of “Venus in Fur” keeps you guessing – and savoring – each mutable moment.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck                     

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.
Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.