‘Venus in Fur’ at Rep Stage

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Rep Stage returns from a busy summer makeover with a new production team and a five-star season-opener, Venus in Fur. David Ives’s 2010 comedy-drama scores big points with its fresh, two-person give-and-take on male-female power plays. With the audience seated on both sides, the intimate Rep Stage space becomes a sort of center court for a work that, in Director Joseph Ritsch’s care, is as much intellectual tennis match as theater piece. Don’t come to this one with a stiff neck — or a closed mind.Set Designer Daniel Ettinger provides an elongated studio apartment in workaday Manhattan, complete with grungy skylight window and exposed plumbing. This is where a smart young New York stage director named Thomas has grown oh-so-disenchanted with the string of modern actresses auditioning for his latest work.

Enter one harried, brash and seemingly disorganized final auditioner named Vanda, who comes late and seemingly ill-prepared but proceeds to, shall we say, rock Thomas’s world?

Whatever else one says about Venus in Fur, it provides a dazzling showcase for the actress playing Vanda. Nina Ariadna won a Tony Award and a string of other honors for her origination of the role on Broadway.

In Howard County, an actress named Kathryn Tkel is making her Rep Stage debut in the role, and she is everything that Ives or the audience could desire.

Kathryn Tkel and Elan Zafir. Photo by  Katie Ellen Simmons-Barth.

Kathryn Tkel and Elan Zafir. Photo by Katie Ellen Simmons-Barth.

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, gives 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 Fur stops 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.

Running Time: About 95 minutes, with no intermission.

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Venus in Fur by Rep Stage plays through October 19, 2014 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.

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