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Brace yourself for stormy weather, black leather

Who's in charge here? An audition becomes a battle of wills between Thomas, played by Elan Zafir, and Vanda, played by Kathryn Tkel, in Rep Stage's "Venus in Fur."
Who's in charge here? An audition becomes a battle of wills between Thomas, played by Elan Zafir, and Vanda, played by Kathryn Tkel, in Rep Stage's "Venus in Fur." (submitted photo)

The audition process can be as anxiety-inducing for theater directors as it is for actors, and that sense of anxiety also extends to those of us who are merely watching an audition in David Ives' "Venus in Fur." This disturbing play is receiving an appropriately moody staging at Rep Stage.

Making this dark comedy even edgier is that the play-within-the-play is based on a notoriously kinky 19th Century novel. It's little wonder that the director and an actor involved in the audition are uneasy about getting the show, er, whipped into shape.

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As even this very general description of "Venus in Fur" makes plain, it's best to leave the kids at home for this one; for that matter, not all adults will feel in the mood to weather all that leather.

And, speaking of the weather, there is a virtually non-stop thunderstorm raging outside the gray-hued and rather gloomy rehearsal space where the playwright-director, Thomas, is nearing the end of a long day of auditioning actors when the door suddenly opens and in struts a latecomer to the auditions,

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Vanda, who is outspoken even before she declaims Thomas's play's rather purple prose.

"Venus in Fur" essentially is a battle of the wills between the strong-willed Thomas and the fiercely mysterious Vanda. If Vanda initially makes a terrible impression as an actor and, while we're at it, as a human being, she may have more talent and ethical integrity than one might suspect.

Then again, she's such a slippery individual that much of the interest in this play resides in the effort made by Thomas and you to figure out what makes Vanda tick. That tension makes this intermissionless 95-minute play a tantalizing puzzle play for those in the mood to piece it together.

Although Ives is best-known for a much sillier play, "All in the Timing," it's notable that his knack for offbeat humor proves to be a real advantage in "Venus in Fur." Without shortchanging the gender-related power plays that give "Venus in Fur" its dramatic heft, Ives is able to fill this 2011

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Broadway play with more uneasy laughs than you might think such subject matter could support. Whether you should be laughing at the proceedings is something best left for you to discuss with your therapist.

For all his deft comic scripting, Ives tends to be rather heavy with some ponderous dialogue and the overall thematic treatment. All of the thunder-and-lightning-filled atmospheric effects, for instance, seem more suitable for a horror film.

While we're on the subject of films, the recent film version of "Venus in Fur" directed by Roman Polanski also and perhaps inevitably also gets bogged down in an over-the-top dramatic scenario that seems forced.

If you're willing to submit to this deliberately claustrophobic situation, the play works quite well on its own arguably overdetermined terms. By extension, the Rep Stage production directed by Joseph W. Ritsch is a conceptually smart presentation of the play.

The entire play transpires (or, if you don't care for it, expires) within a claustrophobic gray box of a room designed with architectural savvy by Daniel Ettinger. Similarly, the grim lighting by Joseph R. Walls and thunderstorm-driven sound design by William D'Eugenio really pull you into the rehearsal hall where Thomas and Vanda wage conversational battle. As for the wardrobe, costume designer David Burdick provides skimpy clothing for Vanda that sure gets your attention.

All of this production design is in the service of the two characters who occupy a rehearsal hall that is both grimly realistic and slightly surreal. It's a bracingly effective setting in which the two Rep Stage actors can showcase their talent.

In that respect, the electrical storm outdoors is matched by the electric energy in the performances by Elan Zafir as Thomas and Kathryn Tkel as Vanda. It's intriguing to watch the nervous interplay between them.

This play may not be everybody's idea of an ideal date night, but it's a bold play receiving a bold staging. It's something that serious theatergoers should consider attending. Just leave the kids — and some of the adults — at home.

Rep Stage's "Venus in Fur" runs through Oct. 19 in Howard Community College's Studio Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., in Columbia. For ticket info, call 443-518-1500 or go to http://www.repstage.org.

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