Sunday, March 17, 2013

VENUS IN FUR • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Studio Theatre)

Venus in Fur, under Seth Gordon's flawless direction, is currently searing the Rep's Studio stage.  Taking a look at sexual power dynamics with sharp wit, humor and a slightly surreal tone, this Tony nominated play will keep you wrapped around its finger from the start to its satisfying conclusion, and leave you wanting more.

Vanda (Sarah Nedwek) is coming in late for an audition for the play, "Venus in Fur".  Thomas (Jay Stratton), the arrogant director/playwright, is frustrated at not having found the right woman for the part, and after ranting about the "bubble heads" he's had to audition, he's finally preparing to head home when Vanda bursts in, drenched and frazzled from the storm outside.  She immediately plunges into an indelicate barrage of excuses for her tardiness, thinking she's blown it.

Sarah Nedwek (Vanda) and Jay Stratton (Thomas).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Thomas, whose nerves are also frayed, is quite sure she's nowhere near right for the part, but Vanda tries to coax him to hear her audition, all the while looking for a costume she's brought along.  She slips it on, but not before stripping down to some sexy black leather lingerie and thigh high boots.  After producing a copy of the script that she's somehow gotten her hands on, she launches into the audition, delivering the lines with a grace that takes Thomas by surprise.  Slipping out of character, Vanda suggests that the story is about S&M, but Thomas insists that it's really a love story.  The 1870's novel that Thomas has adapted his story from concerns a man who dreams of speaking to Venus about love while she wears furs and ends up reading a story about Severin von Kusiemski, a man who yearns to be subjugated by a woman named Wanda.  The novel was written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, after whom the term “masochism” was coined.  Hmmm...

Sarah Nedwek (Vanda) and Jay Stratton (Thomas).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
As the sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning continue outside, Thomas reads with Vanda, who oddly seems to know the script inside and out.  As they slip in and out of the text, the dynamics shift, and lines become blurred.  Vanda probes Thomas for information about his personal life, but seems to mysteriously know more about it than she should.

Nedwek smoothly goes from a coarse, ditzy actress to the regal Wanda von Dunajew of the play, seductively and comically commanding the stage.  Stratton holds his own opposite Nedwek, finding it harder and harder to resist her.  David Kay Mickelsen's costumes, including Vanda's assortment of jackets she's brought for Thomas to wear, are spot-on, and the sound and lights, courtesy of Rusty Wandall and Seth Jackson respectively, add an eerie vibe to the proceedings.

Also, I love a black box theatre space, and with the audience on both sides of the stage, it's all the more engaging.  Venus in Fur is a great piece of theatre and a fascinating examination of sex and power that will stick with you.  Check it out -- it's playing until the 24th.

Jay Stratton (Thomas) and Sarah Nedwek (Vanda).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

Written by David Ives
Directed by Seth Gordon
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through March 24 | tickets: $47 - $60
Performances Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm, Selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm

Jay Stratton* (Thomas) and Sarah Nedwek* (Vanda).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Jason Coale; costume design by David Kay Mickelsen; lighting design by Seth Jackson; sound design by Rusty Wandall; stage manager, Emilee Buchheit.

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