In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Max Williamson and Becky Cofta star in "Venus in Fur" running at Off the Wall Theatre. (PHOTO: Dale Gutzman)

Sexual power battles captivate in Off the Wall's "Venus in Fur"

On the surface, the story of the tortured playwright/director and the needy female actor auditioning for a role would seem to be just one more essay into the sometimes mysterious world of live theater.

But in David Ives' "Venus in Fur," which opened at Off the Wall Theater Thursday night, it is so much more. Instead of the typical expectations for a play, this one is about sexual power politics and a special desire, if not under the elms, then at least under the klieg lights.

Under Jeremy C. Welter's direction, this comedy/drama/morality play delivers a captivating tale that is as interesting as any theatergoer could want.

Thomas (Max Williamson) is adapting a 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. It's a two character play he's created, and he's spent the day unsuccessfully auditioning actors to play the female lead, Vanda, a noblewoman.

He's frustrated and in the process of calling it a day when an actor named Vanda Jordan (Becky Cofta) arrives, delayed by hours. She rushes through the blame game of late trains, the horrifying rain, a heel caught in a grate and a creep on the train who kept pushing up against her on the ride. She is clearly flustered but equally intent on wringing a chance to audition out of Thomas.

Her rapid fire explanations, however, fall on deaf ears as Thomas is more than ready to call it a day and leave. He tells her he is looking for someone "a little different." In her frustration, she plops down whining that she is "too small, too big, too young or too old."

Her fierce will finally wins out, as she pulls out a copy of the entire play, much to his surprise, and they begin to read, with him reading the male lead and her playing the noblewoman without script in hand. She has memorized the part.

It is when they begin to do the play that the real sparks begin to fly. The 90 minutes fly by with alternating bouts of the play and the play within the play. What is reality, and what is the story written by his pen? Neither one of the players seems to know, and yet, they both seem to know.

Is his theatrical seduction real? Is her domination of him only a pretense? Are they on a collision course or a road to happiness? Tough questions – and I won't dare to reveal the answers here.

But a smart play like this is about both the big ideas – pleasure versus pain, lust versus love – and small moments. Welter has provided a space for both for his actors, none more so than a moment near the end of the play after the lengthy flirtation of Thomas and Vanda has approached fever pitch.

He is falling faster than she is, and after being stripped down to her sexy black underwear (for a third time) she asks him to zip up the back of the period gown she has brought just for this audition.

As he stands behind her, Cofta, facing the audience, smiles just a little one, telling the world that sees her that this seduction is progressing just as she both hoped and knew it would. It's a telling moment about which one is really calling the shots.

Three seasons ago, The Rep mounted this play with Reese Madigan and Greta Wohlrabe in the starring roles. It was an impressive production with an abundance of comedy thrown in to keep things moving along.

Welter has called for something darker and more sinister than that production, and Williamson and Cofta are up to the task.

Williamson starred in a magnificent Splinter Group production of "Bug" several seasons ago, and he has grown significantly as an actor. He's both a victim and a helpless predator here, and he mixes each with distinction.

He is the picture of the tortured artist worn down by his own drive and determination and the sorrow of never having caught a brass ring. This play is his baby, and like any parent, he laments his inability to bring his child to fulsome life.

With his wild mop of curly hair and his lanky physique, he is the profile of the young man ripe for a seductress to upset his already turbulent world.

Cofta is a marvel I saw for the first time Thursday night – with the exception of a small role in "Wild Party," a production earlier this season from All In Productions. From her first moments on the stage, she captures the mixture of ditzy actor with the knife-like penetration of a world class Aphrodite. In her black stockings, heels, boy shorts, garter belt and bra, she is enough to set anyone, man or woman, on fire. She mixes her increasing sexuality with a demanding purpose that spins Thomas like an out-of-control top.

She heats the entire stage, and Thomas is powerless to resist being dragged into her inferno. Cofta is a skilled physical comedienne and captures all sides of a complex and compelling character.

I don't know if it was by accident or on purpose, but when she used an accent to read the fictional Vanda, it was a stilted and unconventional kind of British. It was almost perfect for an actor who has struggled to find work as her Vanda has. If she chose to use a bad accent, she deserves unmitigated credit.

If the acting missed one thing, it may well have been a sharper distinction between the arch of both of these characters. Thomas went from calm and distraction to frantic and engaged. Vanda moves from nutsy and scatterbrained to precise and threatening.

Ives has written a play that I never get tired of seeing, and Welter's impressive production just adds to the list of those I've seen and that get the very most out of an interesting and provocative evening.

"Venus in Fur" runs through Nov. 13 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.


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