Venus in Fur
By David Ives
through Oct. 19 At Rep Stage
By the time Vanda (Kathryn Tkel) bursts into the small, officelike audition room, Thomas (Elan Zafir) not only wants to shoo her away immediately, he sounds like he can’t be bothered to talk to another actress ever again. As the writer and director of an adaptation of a late-19th-century novel about a man finding profound bliss in his subjugation to a woman, Thomas feels as though he’s never going to find the right actress, one who understands how to balance intelligence with passion and eroticism. But he knows instantly it’s not Vanda. She’s base, pedestrian, profane. She could never be the type of woman who understood the power she could wield over a man, much less have the feral sophistication to find the pleasure in that dominance. And over the roughly 100 minutes of Rep Stage’s production of David Ives’ play “Venus in Fur,” Vanda shows Thomas just how wrong he is about her.
This delicious production of the 2010 play benefits from coming so short on the heels of Roman Polanski’s film version, which passed through Baltimore over the summer. Polanski’s adaptation, which transferred the play to Paris, felt so thoroughly French, so much a talky comedy of manners in which a man and a woman trading pseudo-intellectual ideas stands in for their carnal desires. It’s classy about being so naughty. Rep Stage’s production, helmed by co-artistic director Joseph Ritsch, relishes the play’s noisy, American obscenity. Vanda isn’t just lower-class; she’s trashily dressed in leather, probably faux. Thomas isn’t just pretentious; he’s specious. This “Venus” isn’t simply about an actress proving a director how wrong he is about hers and his work; it’s a battle between a woman and a man in which he realizes he doesn’t even know himself.
The play’s presentation reinforces this notion of a battle spectacle. The stage is installed in between two sets of risers, like grandstands on either side of a football game. In the middle, scenic designer Daniel Ettinger and lighting designer Joseph Walls have created a barren, ordinary upper-floor warehouse room refashioned into a tiny studio. Thomas uses a folding-table as a desk; a water cooler stands in one corner by the door; another folding table with a drip-coffee maker stands on another. A single tall window allows the dreary, rainy gray sky to be seen, and a patient storm’s occasional lightning bolts intermittently strobe the room. It’s the rented studio of a writer/director who doesn’t have that much of a budget behind his production.
It’s into this ordinary studio that the extraordinary Vanda tears. Tkel gives Vanda a touch of Rosie Perez’s alluring abrasiveness—the same voice that can make a harsh cuss word sound wittily chaste can twist it slightly and make a verbal jibe draw blood. All Thomas initially sees in her is the superficial commoner and condescendingly insults her wardrobe, acting career, and intelligence.
And Zafir has the overeducated shitbird down. His Thomas doesn’t simply think very highly of himself; he radiates an attitude that makes you suspect he’s annoyed when his friends don’t share this opinion of him. Even when he’s talking to his fiancee on the phone, his crisply polished voice makes him sound like one of those indie-lit guys who makes what he thinks are obscure references and assumes he has to explain them.
And like many self-satisfied guys he doesn’t know how to deal with a woman emotionally expressing vulnerability. So when Vanda protests, begs, and pleads for an audition since she’s already there, he eventually consents. She surprises him not only with her familiarity with his script but with her insights into his elusive female character, also conveniently named Vanda. He surprises himself by how easily he understands his play’s male character, which she entices him to read opposite her. And very soon, they’re practically becoming the characters in the play, and it’s difficult to tell who is directing—and dominating—whom.
Tkel and Zafir make this cat-and-mouse game physical, but only rarely through actual touch. Invasion of physical space and a cold, even stare are used as intimate threats. Spit flies from their mouths when the dialogue, in both the play and the play-within-the-play, becomes heated. And the donning of prop clothing—a servant’s coat, a dog collar—becomes non-verbal displays of dominance, a dog showing its teeth to another to let it know the bite is much, much worse.
This approach enthusiastically embraces the play’s vulgarity, which anchors sexual and creative urges as complementary drives in the body. And as much as Vanda’s body is on display, it’s Thomas’ that is begging for the rod. Rep Stage, a professional company in residence at Howard Community College, has an impeccable track record of mounting top-notch productions, and while Ritsch and Suzanne Beal were named co-artistic directors in the summer of 2013, the 2014-15 season is the first they’ve programmed together. And this “Venus in Fur” suggests that, under their guidance, Rep Stage will be willing to delve into uncomfortable themes that burrow under the skin.