Kinks Above The Waistline: VENUS IN FUR at the REP

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Kinks Above The Waistline: VENUS IN FUR at the REP

Kathryn Tkel and Elan Zafir

Kathryn Tkel and Elan Zafir

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com October 6,m 2014

There’s a throwaway line everyone knows from the song One Night in Bangkok from the musical Chess: “I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine.” Against all odds, Venus in Fur, David Ives‘ recent Broadway hit, now enjoying what I think is its premiere in this region at the REP Stage in Columbia, manages to be drenched with fetishistic imagery, clothing, and behavior and yet to rely for its appeal almost exclusively on cerebral stimulation. I’ve seen a production of Much Ado About Nothing that was sexier. It is neither “porn [n]or pornish,” to use a phrase from the play. It’s all “above the waistline.”

It set me to racking my brain to explain this. Vanda (Kathryn Tkel) is certainly easy on the eyes, and you don’t have to be deep into S&M to appreciate how she looks in a black teddy, garters, black stockings, and (in the later going, at least) shiny black thigh-high dominatrix boots. Nor are most of us totally erotically immune to the sight of a man being tied up by someone in that kind of getup. What seems to be missing from these rituals – and what seems to be necessary to give them any frisson – is the participation of actual characters.

I mean that quite literally. This play is deep in the territory of Theater of the Absurd. The actors are enacting a ritual in which the old Absurdist trick of removing consistency of personality, even of identity, and swapping places, goes on and on and on. The man is supposedly Thomas (Elan Zafir), a playwright who is trying to cast a play he has adapted from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s erotic classic Venus in Furs, and Vanda supposedly an actress trying out for the part of Wanda, the heroine of the story. The erotic fixation nominally in play is masochism, the compulsion of the man to submit to the woman, but since Thomas is the one doing the casting and Vanda the one reading for the part, the “real life” power relationship is the converse of what is depicted by the words and actions of the play-within-the-play. But if Thomas is really in this exercise for the kinky kicks of it, then she is back being the one with the power, even trying out for a role. And then she begins to add her own creativity and directorial initiative to the tryout, intensifying her apparent domination of the situation. At some point, moreover, Thomas plays a woman and Vanda a man – which puts him back on top if the woman is in charge. But whenever we start to feel tempted to say well, that’s it, they’ve switched roles, they seem to revert to their original personae and their original alignment in the power equation. So it’s impossible to say who’s in charge or to know what really drives either of them. It’s impossible to know how much research Vanda has done on Thomas, although it seems possible that her degree of knowledge gives her a mastery of the situation that also amounts to a reversal of roles. And especially it’s impossible to know what to make of her apparent apotheosis before the final blackout into the actual goddess Venus. In short, there are no consistent characters, and most importantly perhaps, no one necessarily acting out of any erotic compulsion at all; hence the lack of steam. The whole thing may have been a dream, and no telling whose.

Otherwise put, it’s all head games; the loins don’t come into it much. Joseph Ritsch‘s direction may have something to do with this. I was not fortunate enough to see either the Off-Broadway or the Broadway incarnations of this show, but I have seen a clip of the Broadway version, and there was far more touching between the actors in the moments depicted there, touching which seemed to reflect some heat between the characters, whatever was going on. I think it’s possible Ritsch may have dialed back on that deliberately, to emphasize the head games.

Be that as it may, how well one likes this production depends very much upon how appealing one finds the constant morphing and switching place of characters. If shifting psychodynamics are your thing, this version caters to your taste. Tkel is excellent as she repeatedly changes voice and accent and affect, a Noo Yoouhk-accented noodginess and klutziness as Vanda, a Judy-Holliday-in-Born-Yesterday sprightliness as a slightly more empowered Vanda making suggestions during the reading, and a cultivated Masterpiece Theatre voice and regally bitchy style as Wanda and as maybe-Venus. Zafir isn’t called upon for quite the vocal range (as the protagonist of the play-within-the-play, he does move to some indefinable kind of mittel-Europäische accent), but he too has to shift gears all the time among the somewhat-sexist-man-in-charge personality, the woman-worshiper personality, and the variation on that theme, the topper-from-the-bottom. So these actors are all about gear-shifting. With a comic touch, which they also excel at.

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.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Credit: Katie Simmons-Barth

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