Reese Madigan and Greta Wohlrabe in "Venus in
Fur." (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
David Ives is American theater’s postmodern prankster, a wordsmith who can stretch a pun or seemingly one-off joke into a tale of surprising nuance and emotion. In his short play, “Words, Words, Words,” he riffs on that old mind-bending equation: (3 typewriters + 3 chimpanzees) x infinity = Shakespeare’s Hamlet, turning it into a hilarious Orwellian fable with surprising emotional heft. Since the success of his short plays 20 years ago, he’s done a lot of modernizing, finding witty collaborators in classical funnymen like Moliere and Corneille. For his breakthrough, Ives found inspiration in an unlikely source, a erotic 19th century novel.
In Venus in Fur, his celebrated 2010 Broadway hit, which just opened at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater (and will play at many, many American theaters this season), he finds a scenario and subject with real gravitas—men and women, and the games they play.
Thomas (Reese Madigan) is a playwright with a vision, a serious intellectual who is quite taken with Venus in Furs, the landmark novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which recounts a man’s obsession with a woman to whom he offers himself as a submissive slave. He has written a play based on the novel, and he will play the submissive himself. But when we meet him, he can’t seem to find himself a mistress to serve. A frustrating evening of auditions has been disappointing, and looks even bleaker when a straggler walks in hours late. Thomas is skeptical. Vanda (Greta Wohlrabe) strikes him as an airhead who has nothing to offer. But she wheedles her way into an audition anyway.
What follows is a savvy character study, an erotic cat-and-mouse game, and a wonderful tribute to the power of theater to entrance, beguile and surprise.
For Vanda is not what she seems, and her ability to inhabit the role of the love interest is startling to both Thomas and the audience. Ives has great fun with Vanda’s ability to slip in to character and the drop of a hat (or the snap of a birch switch), and Wohlrabe makes the most of it. She, Madigan and director Laura Gordon understand this is the fun at the heart of Ives’s play—and it pays off again and again when the audience reacts to Vanda’s sudden transition from smooth seductress to airhead actress. Madigan offers a great foil—showing how Thomas takes himself completely seriously as a playwright and as the submissive character who rhapsodizes about the transcendence of “giving oneself completely to another.”
Gordon and her actors know exactly how to play this game, pacing the evolving relationship just right and finding just the right details to keep the audience both rapt and slightly off-kilter. The Rep’s Venus in Fur strikes just the right balance between Ives big ideas and his clever mind games. After the final surprising moment, it still leaves you aching for more.