Perhaps you’ve heard that David Ives' 2010 play, Venus in Fur, is a hot item at regional theaters this season. It’s receiving more than two-dozen unique productions in cities across America, including the one presently onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse. It’s the story of Thomas, a director/playwright who has devised a script from an erotic Victorian novel. As the show begins, he’s convinced he won’t find the right actress, someone who can bring both the smarts and the sensuality necessary for the title role. Then Vonda stumbles in, hours late for her audition and showing slim evidence of meeting his expectations. But before long she has Thomas in her thrall and is leading him down a path of domination and power.
Greta Wohlrabe has total command of the role of Vanda, from ditzy, often-brazen actress to cool, sophisticated mistress.
She switches between these with whip-smart speed, keeping PJ Sosko’s Thomas constantly off balance. His arrogant, demeaning confidence is soon demolished as the game of cat-and-mouse unfolds in a seedy loft rehearsal space. He and Vanda role-play his script’s characters, and their interaction in the provocative dance of actress and director blurs the lines between fiction and reality, with an occasional crash of thunder for punctuation.
On Broadway, Walter Bobbie staged Venus in Fur, and I’m guessing that most of the productions across America have had male directors. But this one has been steered by Playhouse Associate Artist KJ Sanchez, a female director who says, “As a woman, I am … yearning for a gal to come in and give him a good kick in the pants.” She adds, “Thomas needs to be taught a lesson, and Vanda’s the one to do it.”
So it’s revenge, with a lot of prickly dialogue — contemporary, crude, literate and historic — and some flat-out funny moments, mostly deriving from Wohlrabe’s quicksilver changes from erudite to erotic to eccentric. It doesn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous, too, and as she accrues more and more qualities that suggest she’s not quite a run-of-the-mill actress, her march to the show’s climax is both convincing and deftly entertaining. In fact, it’s the kind of tease that the original novel must have provided, and it’s certainly what Sanchez and this fine pair of actors deliver.
VENUS IN FUR, presented Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, continues through May 17.