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Characters take turns exuding power in Milwaukee Rep's 'Venus in Fur'

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

October 3, 2013

 

WAUKESHA - “Venus in Fur,” a play and film adapted from a novel by the Austrian writer Leopold von Cacher-Masoch has been Off-Broadway, On-Broadway and is presently playing in the Milwaukee Rep’s Steimke Studio.

It is a fascinating dance of two characters - a playwright and an actor - but soon becomes a quartet of four characters. It is a play within a play, and both are fascinating.

For the squeamish among you, the play touches on the subject of sadomasochism, a sexual behavior chosen by some, but it is really more about power and how it is a shifting reality in intimate relationships between men and women. The battle of the sexes has become a clichˇ for a reason. It is alive and well and ongoing.

Thomas, a playwright, is auditioning young, beautiful women to play the part of Vanda in his new play, “Venus in Fur.” After an exhausting day trying to find a suitable actor, he complains to his fiancˇe on the phone that young women are shallow and childish and ditzy. His superiority comes across in this conversation.

Amidst a substantial thunderstorm, in bursts Vanda, a dazzling blond, soaked and gutsy. It turns out that she didn’t even have an appointment, but there is something about her that is compelling enough to convince Thomas to let her read some scenes. She insists that he join her, and the game is on.

As the audition continues, he discovers that beneath her seemingly vacuous fa¨ade lurks an intelligent, accomplished woman. She shifts back and forth between herself and the character, challenging the playwright at every turn about his work and his personal life. He insists that the play he has written does not mirror his personal beliefs about the relationship between men and women, but she insists that we cannot completely divorce ourselves from our creations. Even the way an actor executes a role will reveal something about the personality of the actor. I can’t remember who said it, but the line, “Who you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say” came to mind as I watched this play.

Reese Madigan and Greta Wohlrabe are both good choices for their roles, but she is more mesmerizing and powerful than he. Perhaps the play is written to underline the fact that women are quite powerful, too, though men seem to dominate the world. Many provocative ideas are tossed about. Some people dominate; others want to be dominated. It’s an interesting dynamic.

The costumes designed by Rachel Laritz are marvelous, and Wohlrabe looks smashing in all of them. The relatively barren set design by Scott Davis serves as a fitting backdrop for the struggling artist and puts all the emphasis on the action and characters.  Lighting and sound by Aimee Hanyzewski and Joe Cerqua also enhance the starkness and tension inherent in the script.

“Venus in Fur” is a fascinating duel between a playwright and an actor and a man and a woman, each taking turns exerting their power. It’s a play one could encounter many times and walk away with something different each time. Kudos to David Ives, clever playwright, and to Laura Gordon, very skilled director.

“Venus” runs through Nov. 3 in the Steimke Studio at 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Call 414-291-9490 or visit www.MilwaukeeRep.com for show times and tickets.