Story: Thomas has grown weary interviewing actresses for the starring role in his new play, Venus in Fur. It’s written in the large, bombastic style of 19th century European literature, a genre Thomas laments is all but extinct in modern art. He prepares to leave the audition room in frustration when a flamboyant, stunningly attractive woman enters the room.
She says her name is Vanda (well, originally Wanda), and that she’s desperate to audition for the role of Thomas’ main female character, ironically named Vanda as well. She apologizes for being late, blaming traffic, but somehow cajoles the reluctant director/playwright into watching her read for the part. He informs her that his story is based on a famous novel published in 1870 that was written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose name gave the English language the word masochism, as in deriving pleasure from receiving pain.
Thomas indignantly repudiates Vanda’s observation that the 19th century work was erotic and pornographic, as he stipulates it is about heightened senses and a grand perception of love. He begrudgingly allows Vanda to read for the role and then becomes amazed at her remarkable interpretation. Has he found after all an actress who can inhabit this most demanding character?
Highlights: David Ives, best known for his clever and hilarious compilation of skits called All in the Timing, based this one-act play on that aforementioned novel by von Sacher-Masoch. As All in the Timing so delightfully demonstrated, Ives has a superior command of words and a remarkable ability to create intriguing situations. That’s evidenced here in this sizzling, intoxicating and captivating story that begins as an hilarious comedy and transforms into an arresting drama.
Seth Gordon, associate artistic director of The Rep, has known Ives for more than 20 years. Gordon was one of the guiding lights at Primary Stages, which premiered All in the Timing to enormous success. As a director he underscores Ives’ beguiling thriller as iridescent art that is both charming and uneasily chaotic in The Rep’s current production in its Studio Theatre.
Other Info: Venus in Fur is a shrewd collaborative effort, as Gordon orchestrates the sundry aspects of his technical team to enhance this rendition. Jason Coale’s set design emphasizes the forlorn and shabby audition space which Vanda haughtily observes, a basement with a Spartan floor, a functional desk and a lonely coffee pot next to a divan.
Lighting plays a subtle but integral role under the meticulous care of designer Seth Jackson, as does Rusty Wandall’s sound design with its periodic bursts of thunder that accompany the storm from which Vanda escapes when she makes her entrance. As for the costumes designed by David Kay Mickelsen, featuring Sarah Nedwek as Vanda awash in leather, fishnet stockings and black boots, they are decidedly arresting and alluring. He also adds a smart men’s coat for Thomas to accentuate some more erotic moments.
Vanda brings an impressive assortment of those period costumes to the audition in an enormous shopping bag, utilizig all to superior effect. As Vanda, Nedwek demonstrates remarkable clarity in switching between the foul-mouthed, eccentric, hot-blooded actress and the patrician, icily cool and commanding Roman goddess of love, Venus, summoned in both the novel and Thomas’ contemporary updating.
Not only does Nedwek shift voice modulation, but she transforms her body language with nary a pause, all the while showcasing Vanda’s obvious acting talents. She blurs the lines between the character on stage and the character on the page smoothly and seductively.
Jay Stratton has a tough task playing opposite such a demonstrative role, but he parlays Thomas’ quirky and academic nature into a marvelously complex performance of his own. It’s deliciously bizarre to watch his character gradually lose himself in the role he reads of the indifferent aristocrat who cannot guard effectively against the overwhelming feminine wiles of the compellingly powerful and stately woman he meets.
While the last 15 minutes or so of this 90-minute adventure drag to its ultimately satisfying conclusion, Venus in Fur is a smashing blend of a deftly honed plot and two masterfully crafted characters that will linger in your thoughts long after you’ve departed Ives’ disturbing world for your own.
Play: Venus in Fur
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Emerson Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through March 24
Tickets: $47-$60; contact 968-4925 or repstl.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.