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St. Louis by Richard Green

Venus in Fur
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Also see Richard's review of Boeing, Boeing

Venus in Fur
Sarah Nedwek and Jay Stratton
It's spring, the time of year when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of maniacal (but entertaining) lust for pain and degradation.

At least that's what's happening this month in David Ives' 2010 play Venus in Fur: a riveting, 100-minute show ostensibly about bondage and domination, but which also happens to boast an amazing and hilarious role, performed with great relish and panache by Sarah Nedwek.

She plays a good natured but rough-hewn actress who's late for an audition, and Jay Stratton co-stars as the director who's adapted the story of the strange love affair of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch for the stage. (Masoch, we are told, is best known as the source of the term "masochist," though he also happens to have been a distant relative of the singer Marianne Faithfull.) Here, Ms. Nedwek (as Vanda) auditions for Stratton in a shabby rehearsal hall, and the two read from a script till the play-within-a-play (which begins in 1869) takes on a ruthless, titillating life of its own.

You could just stop reading there, but you'd never know about the good humor, the wild twists and turns, and the transformations that keep the story from ever falling back to Earth—as old roles and back-stories fall away like booster rockets. Ultimately, desire and anguish and ambition twist together in some pretty stunning ways.

Seth Gordon directs, getting a remarkable performance out of Ms. Nedwek, and Mr. Stratton is very good, too, in a role that seems less enticing on paper—but all three of them are challenged by the long "runway" style set that separates two halves of the audience in the Emerson studio theater downstairs. The good news is, if they need it, they've got plenty of audience seating available, thanks to that narrow playing area—which also heightens the dizzying, voyeuristic element at work, as you're always facing half the other ticket-buyers, wherever you sit.

The final fifteen or twenty minutes are especially intense, as the characters in the Ives play are subsumed by the ones in Sacher-Masoch's grisly romance (as you might find in a classic absurdist play). Here, it's almost unbearably sexual, without ever quite becoming literally pornographic, and the little old lady sitting next to me just loved it. I thought it was quite remarkable, as what's ultimately a sizzling-hot piece of theater.

The first hour just shoots by, in a fantastic blur, and the mechanics of the next forty minutes are fascinating, in terms of dynamic reversals and how author Ives and director Gordon build the tension and the brilliant tawdriness. Then, in the last five or ten minutes, things slow down in an almost drug-induced way—it's like passing out, and swimming through a kind of timelessness, as something you can no longer avoid swings irrevocably into view.

There's a kind of horrific, baroque majesty, and a weighty silence that dampens every other reality in those closing minutes, from the sheer intensity of it all. You could say that it's all too private or intimate for public display, but we never say that to the birds or the bees, do we?

Through March 24, 2013, in the studio theater of the Loretto-Hilton center, 130 North Edgar Road, on the campus of Webster University. For more information call the box office at (314) 968-4925, or visit www.repstl.org.

Cast
Thomas: Jay Stratton
Vanda: Sarah Nedwek

Crew
Director: Seth Gordon
Scenic Designer: Jason Coale
Costume Designer: David Kay Mickelsen
Lighting Designer: Seth Jackson
Sound Designer: Rusty Wandall
Casting Director: Rich Cole
Stage Manager: Emilee Buchheit


Photo: Jerry Naunheim Jr.


-- Richard T. Green

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