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Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013

‘Venus in Fur’ At The Rep

Dominance and submission decoded

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Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Venus in Fur is a scintillating foray into topics risqué, comedic and ultimately deeply relational. Exploring the psychology of BDSM, Venus is the story of a director auditioning an actress for the leading role in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs.

The action begins at the end of a long day of disappointing auditions when Vonda (Greta Wohlrabe), seemingly just another ditzy, ill-prepared actress, bursts into the theater to read for Thomas (Reese Madigan). He is reticent to let her proceed, but she is persistent and even convinces him to read opposite her—in the role of a man offering himself as a slave to a woman he’s only just met. In little time, Vonda reveals herself to be not only a striking performer but insightfully opinionated and completely off book.

The script is at its best when the characters seem to wield equal power—a state which, unfortunately, doesn’t last—since it is then that the deepest questions can be explored through dramatic struggle. Amidst the hilarity of sexual tension, the audience is invited to consider the nature of male-female relations, the idea that people are “easily explicable, but not easily extricable” from their culturally coded understandings of sexuality and fulfillment, and that dominance and submission can result in thoroughly unexpected, even contrary, outcomes.

Wohlrabe delivers a masterful performance, deftly flitting between her two characters of modern actress and 19th-century aristocrat. Madigan is convincing as a self-assured artist whose fundamental beliefs about his work and himself are gradually deconstructed.

Production values are high in Laura Gordon’s Venus with the omnipresent thunderstorm (and resultant power outages), created by lighting designer Aimee Hanyzewski and sound designer Joe Cerqua, perfectly punctuating the interpersonal drama.

Nevertheless, the play boils down to a shimmering repartee between two ardent personalities, vying for dominance—sexual, psychological and philosophical. The results are brilliant because they make the audience self conscious in the best sense; there is little discomfort because playwright David Ives is a master of comedy, and yet the topics explored are profound and—even in the 21st century—too often confined to private speculation.

Venus runs through Nov. 3. For tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.

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