Venus in Fur at Rep Stage
When looking at a production of Venus in Fur that is opening at this specific time in our history, the beginning of the fall of 2014, two separate lines of thought begin to form.
First, here is a play about, essentially, the power dynamics in a male/female interaction. There is an inherent discrepancy built in, as the man is Thomas, a director/playwright (or simply “adaptor” as he insists with insincere humility) in charge of casting a female role in his play, also called Venus in Fur and “adapted” from the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novel. Vanda is an actor, who is late for the audition, and arrives burdened with the sort of accent and demeanor which might lead the pretentious in our field to take her less seriously.
Ah, but is there more to her than meets the eye? It’s not a spoiler to say, “Of course”, and playwright David Ives has a lot of fun with the the meta-comedy to be found in a classic scenario like this one. But more than that, the meta-ness is not just funny, but strikingly serious, constantly pulling the characters out of their own performances in the play-within-a-play to offer contemporary analysis on what they’re reading, what the other is overlaying, hiding or denying. Mr. Ives likes to make your brain tingle, as is evidenced in his other work seen here (The Heir Apparent, The Liar) and he positively revels in the chance to do it in this one act.
What we have is a comedy about power and gender, and if you think that sounds incredibly heavy, don’t worry. The themes are deep, but the touch is light and the energy is high.
Director Joseph W. Ritsch works overtime to keep the joke tally high and the pace brisk (and in a one-act play that runs close to an hour and forty-five minutes, sharp pacing is a godsend). In addition, he and his actors orchestrate some chillingly good beat-changes, momentous builds, and beautifully clear shifts of power in the scene that sends tingles down the spine. When that’s the whole point of the play, I’d say job well done.
The atmosphere is quite ominous, foreboding. Sound designer William D’Eugenio’s creepy compositions and ambient storm effects greet us as we enter the theatre and take in Daniel Ettinger’s handsomely detailed rehearsal studio set. The configuration is alley-style, with audience on two opposite sides of the stage, looking straight through at each other, which adds both a voyeuristic feel to our viewing of the (semi-)erotic happenings, while also giving us a role as a trapping, constricting force. For reasons that become apparent later in the play, our role as witnesses can also be considered vital.
David Burdick has some very specific directives as costume designer; it’s easy to appreciate his work when the costumes are textually demanded to get specific titillated reactions from the audience, or are specifically noted as “a perfect fit” when a character puts one on. Lighting designer Joseph R. Walls gives us a nice contrast between two different “worlds” in which the play takes place, although at times I wished for a bit more jarring delineation between the rehearsal studio’s fluorescents and the more elegant lighting grid discovered to light Thomas’ scenes. The storm cues work beautifully with D’Eugenio’s storm sound, and are often goosebump-inducing with their timing inside the actors’ playing.
I mentioned above that there are two discussions prompted by Venus in Fur right now. We’ve covered the timely feminist conversation, and now, like Mr. Ives, it’s time to get a little meta.
Venus in Fur has, deservedly, developed a reputation as a virtuosic turn for the right actress in the role of Vanda. In my estimation, it must be one of the most taxing roles in contemporary theatre, and a real gift to the underserved world of roles for women in general. Nina Arianda won mounds of praise (and a Tony Award) for it, and Erica Sullivan wowed audiences (and Helen Hayes judges) with the role at Studio Theatre in 2011.
This play is such an electric charge that I would argue for seeing it live whenever you get a chance. It’s one where I would caution you against letting the exceptional ruin the excellent. If you saw it at Studio or in New York, see it again here for the unique wrinkles and the chance to have the experience anew.
Elan Zafir, for example, is never better than in Thomas’ pretentious sidebars. What you have is a man working overtime to appear humble, as only the truly vain must. And yet, it never becomes one-dimensional. As Thomas says about the Sacher-Masoch piece, “there is no villain.” So we have a very intelligent, hard-working, modesty-seeking man, filled with problematic traits through a combination of his own faults and society’s.
Make no mistake, though. This play belongs to Kathryn Tkel and her Vanda. By turns wacky, crass, sweet, sexy, terrifying, manipulative, innocent, insightful, foolish, and utterly amorphous, Tkel delivers a Vanda worth catching. Punchline after punchline lands, new qualities keep coming in, and, perhaps most importantly, the play’s surprising finale feels completely earned.
It’s probably worth pointing out that the production isn’t flawless. The acoustics for the alley configuration can make it occasionally challenging to catch a line here and there. I found myself wishing the pivots between characters and the roles they play in the scenes were a hair sharper and more clearly delineated (much like with the lighting).
These are nitpicks though, and things that will very likely solidify as the run continues. And with that said, there is very little I can say that deters me from highly recommending Venus in Fur.
If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth the trip up Route 29 to add it to your theatrical “seen it” list. And if you have seen it before, don’t be daunted by the ghosts of Vandas past. Rep Stage offers a wild, sexy, gripping, uproarious Venus in Fur that will deliver fully on the promise of this terrifically entertaining play.
“Hail Aphrodite,” indeed.
Venus in Fur by David Ives . Directed by Joseph Ritsch . Featuring Elan Zafir and Kathryn Tkel . Set Designer: Daniel Ettinger . Lighting Design: Joseph Walls . Sound Design: William D’Eugenio . Costume Designer: David Burdick . Properties Designer: Mollie Singer . Stage Manager: Keri Shultz assisted by Jeane Compton . Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by John Dellaporta.
Theatre Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ at Rep Stage
“Things are not always what they seem…or are they, ” says Joseph W. Ritsch, director of Venus in Fur now playing at Rep Stage in Columbia, Maryland.
Written by David Ives in 2010, this two-person play takes place in a New York City studio apartment which is being used as a casting office for a new play called Venus in Fur, an adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Yes, this is a real novel, and it is said that it inspired the term Masochism. Did your eyebrows raise? I know mine did.
…smartly directed…a guilty pleasure
Frustrated that he can’t find a suitable actress to play Wanda von Dunayev, writer and director Thomas Novachek (Elan Zafir) is left alone in the office lamenting his feelings to his fiance Stacy on his cell phone. Bursting into the apartment with her tiny child-sized Barbie Doll umbrella, Vanda (Kathryn Tkel) is late for the audition but is determined to do almost anything to get the part. Vanda is so late that there is no one left but Thomas to read the role of Severin von Kushemski. And so the most thorough audition I’ve ever seen begins.
Venus in Fur is smartly directed. From concept to completion Joseph W. Ritsch nails it.
The seating is set in tennis court style with the stage in the center and the audience being on opposite sides. During the performance I found myself watching some of the jaw-dropping reactions from the audience facing me. This was no accident according to the director who adds just a hint of stage lights onto the audience. He wanted the whole experience to be voyeuristic; from the audience peering into the apartment to being able to spy on how other audience members are responding. Though it is fun to watch the audience reactions, the performances are so engaging that I was not overly distracted by it.
The staging of the actors is seamless. In the play the performers have to transition from being their characters to acting like the characters in the play. Sound confusing? It isn’t really, thanks to staging that is deliberate, interesting, but most of all, it helps to tell the story.
Scenic designer Daniel Ettinger gives us a New York City studio apartment with mute colors, a window with a cracked panel, and dirty, worn out paint, and a pole. Yes, a pole that goes from ceiling to floor. Throughout the play there is a thunderstorm and lighting designer Joseph R. Walls does a fine job with his lightning effects. William D’Eugenio’s sound design also added to the production values. For this production, Rep Stage utilizes the most speakers ever used for a production, using 12 strategically placed speakers throughout the theatre.
There are only two performers on stage so they better be good, right! Thankfully both performers have enough spark to ignite David Ives’ provocative and witty script.
Elan Zafir is making his debut at Rep Stage in the role as Thomas Novachek. He is believable, portraying a writer/director who truly loves the characters in his play because they have “opera-like emotions.” “This is why people go to plays to experience emotions they don’t feel in real life.”
Kathryn Tkel is also making her debut at Rep Stage in the role as Vanda. This sexy and spunky brunette does a fine job at going from her NY accent to the voice dialect of the character she is auditioning for. What is more, Kathryn is able to deliver with good timing the many funny one-liners.
Together, they play off of each other nicely in this cat and mouse game of slave verses master and mistress verses slave. Reading as the character Wanda von Dunayev, Vanda says, “you say you are my slave, but you are the one who has mastered me.”
But is she telling the truth? Does Vanda get the part? Where does fantasy blend into reality? Come and watch Venus in Fur at Rep Stage and you will find some answers to some rather intriguing questions. It is a guilty pleasure indeed.
Wearing little more than a sexy black corset outfit and heels, she remains grounded in the character of the sassy, sharp-tongued and experienced New York street survivor. In her supposedly “cold” reading, though, she more than disappears eerily into the 1870s female lead in Thomas’ play.
Little by little, we get the impression that Vanda knows more about Thomas, his work and even his private life, than she could have casually learned. In short, she is as devious as she is desirable. And soon the battle is on for the meatiest role of the evening, that of top dog.
In terms of its sheer theatrical dynamism, the part of Thomas is not as showy. The stock figure of the cocky blue-jeaned playwright in spiritual need of being taken down a peg puts us naturally in Vanda’s corner — no matter where that corner turns out to be. So most of the time, all eyes are on her.
Still, Elan Zafir, another seasoned actor making his Rep debut, give Thomas much more than a run for his money. Zafir has the shaved head and masculine build of the goldenboy athlete determined to set new bench press records in the world of ideas. He also projects just enough self-aware humor to stand upright through the withering storm of self-doubts headed his way.
Venus in Fur gets its title from Thomas’s supposed stage adaptation of a real-life novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The Austrian author’s 1870 book (and his name) provided the prototype of the Freudian sado-masochist relationship, which makes an amusing overlay for viewing the Thomas-Vanda dynamic. Who will be victor in the age-old showdown between ego and libido?
To this viewer, however, Ives’ provocative ploy to use fetishism to explore something more than that, winds up amounting to nothing other than that. Fetishism is clearly a part of life; but we expect art to help us relate the parts to a whole, and that is where Venus in Furstops short.
There is no quibbling, though, with this expert, five-star production. In its spot-on comic timing, dramatic commitment, superior casting and design, it is a joy to behold. Venus in Fur is a dazzling start to the Rep Stage season — and a golden calling card for its new artistic team.
The Rousuck Review: “Venus in Fur”
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. Elan Zafir 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.
BWW Reviews: Kinks Above The Waistline: VENUS IN FUR at the REP
Co-Producing Artistic Directors Ritsch and his colleague Suzanne Beal are beginning their first season in charge of the repertoire at the REP, Howard County’s Equity company, and according to the program, they are aiming to produce “stunning new plays by young American playrights.” A worthy goal, in view of the immense wealth of new material in what seems to be a new Golden Age of the American theater, and Venus in Fur is a worthy first step toward that goal.
Rep Stage opens season with spicy, stinging ‘Venus in Fur’
Tim Smith The Baltimore Sun
9:16 a.m. EDT, October 8, 2014
Kathryn Tkel and Elan Zafir in Rep Stage’s production of ‘Venus in Fur’ (Katie Simmons-Barth)
Judging by the spicy, sophisticated production of David Ives’ “Venus in Fur,” it’s going to be an interesting year for the Columbia-based professional company Rep Stage, now in its first full season planned by recently appointed co-producing artistic directors Suzanne Beal and Joseph W. Ritsch.
“Venus in Fur,” a hit on Broadway in 2011, manages a neat little trick of turning tables and shifting centers of gravity as it confronts issues of desire, passion, sexuality and domination. It’s also pretty funny. And you thought sadomasochism was so, so serious.
At the start of the two-character work, a playwright-director named Thomas has just wrapped up a grueling, discouraging audition session that failed to find the perfect actress to star in his adaptation of an 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (as in masochist, of course).
Thomas is about to head off to see his fiancee when in bursts a very late, very discombobulated aspirant named Vanda, fiddling with an umbrella — ominous thunder is in the air — and a well-stuffed satchel. She is determined to have her audition.
Maybe it’s the Victorian secret she reveals under her coat that weakens Thomas’ defenses. Maybe it’s just Vanda’s mix of obstinacy and self-pity that gets to him. But once he succumbs to her entreaties, Thomas will never be the same.
Although she says she has only glanced at a copy of the script, a copy she shouldn’t even have had access to, Vanda is more than prepared for the audition. And when she slips into the character of a woman (amazingly, also named Vanda) who ends up dominating a nobleman in the play, the sparks begin to fly.
Vanda soon gets Thomas to read the lines of the smitten nobleman who develops a taste for humiliation and pain. Faster than the snap of a riding crop, this exercise in life-imitating-art-imitating-life is off and running.
“Venus in Fur” tries a little too hard to be clever at times, and gets a little too obvious at others; a touch of what you might call deus ex masochist seems especially heavy-handed. Still, this look at the roles people play onstage and off, this examination of the intricacies of relationships, includes enough mystery and surprise to sustain the 90 or so intermission-less minutes.
The Rep Stage production, directed by Ritsch, makes a sturdy case for the play thanks to a couple of crackling performances.
Kathryn Tkel brings equal amounts of naughty and nice to the role of Vanda. Whether mocking Thomas for having “nice, quiet sex” or encouraging him to dig deeper into the words he has written, Tkel’s Vanda is a delectable force.
Elan Zafir’s smart, nuanced portrayal captures each shift in Thomas’ confidence, each layer in the character’s fluid sensuality. When the story takes its sharpest turn, the actor turns wonderfully along with it.
Although Ritsch does not take advantage of all the comic possibilities in the piece, he keeps things moving naturally and briskly all over Daniel Ettinger’s evocative set (the audience is seated on either side of the stage).
In the end, “Venus in Fur” leaves a satisfying little sting.
Shiny Boots of Leather
Rep Stage dominates in being dominated
1:35 p.m. EDT, October 13, 2014
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.