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.