Reviews: Venus in Fur

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.

Elan Zafir and Kathryn Tkel (Photo: Katie Ellen Simmons-Barth)

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 and Kathryn Tkel (Photo: Katie Ellen Simmons-Barth)

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.


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Elan Zafir’s misemployment of the run-on sentence

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