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Reese Madigan and Greta Wohlrabe star in the Rep's production of "Venus in Fur."
Reese Madigan and Greta Wohlrabe star in the Rep's production of "Venus in Fur." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

"Venus in Fur" is a fascinating play within a play

She got the part.

Greta Wohlrabe, a Vanda who plays Vanda, auditioned for a role for Thomas the director.

And she got the part.

It’s the play within the play of "Venus in Fur," the dazzling David Ives play that opened at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio theater Friday night.

Wohlrabe and Rep Associate Artist Reese Madigan weave a spell on this stage that when the play was over, I felt myself blinking back to reality.

Madigan’s Thomas is the playwright and director of a production he has adapted from a 19th century novel that's focused on both sadism and masochism. He's been cloistered for the whole day in a dank room, conducting auditions. And so far, none of the 35 actresses he’s seen are right for the role of Vanda von Dunayev.

He is about to leave for home when  a rain-soaked blonde comes crashing through the door. It is Vanda (coincidentally) Jordan, one of thousands of New York hungry actors. She caught a heel in a sewer grate, was semi-molested on the train and is hours late, but she's determined to make Thomas give her a chance. As she strips to a black corset, garter belt and black stockings, she raises peals of laughter from the audience. 

She also raises Thomas’s interest enough that he gives her a chance. He reads the part of Severin von Kushemski; she reads Vanda.

And it turns out that Vanda has a grip on this character and talent that makes Thomas’s heart beat faster. They continue to read, alternating between Kushemski and Thomas and Vanda and Vanda. 

The simple thing to do would be to look at this as just another story of seduction with a little S&M thrown in for good measure. Lots of laughs plus some sexy skin and lingerie.

But the play is so much more in the hands of director Laura Gordon. 

She has a clear understanding that "Venus in Fur" is really a mysterious portrayal of the battle between the sexes and the battles we fight with ourselves. There are so many complexities and layers to this play that I intend to see it again, not as a reviewer but as a curious fan. I rarely do that.

There would be nothing for us to grasp onto if it weren’t for two magnificent performances.

Madigan, a Rep favorite, suitably and subtly captures the essence of the tortured artist. His range, from angry at the world to tender and light as a leaf caught on a summer breeze, is exciting.

Wohlrabe takes the role of Vanda to an unexpected and thrilling level.

Hers is a towering performance, ranging with the delicious humor of Vanda the struggling actor to the aristocratic vamp of Vanda the character. She has a body and face to die for, and an unmistakable gift for physical comedy. But she can be aloof without being stuffy and cutting without the hard edge of cruelty. 

In 2010, she was an acting intern at the Rep and has moved on to a variety of prestigious companies, not the least of which is the American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

We can only hope that she stays here in Wisconsin, but I fear New York may beckon, and she will be gone. 

"Venus in Fur" runs through Nov. 3. Information is available at milwaukeerep.com.

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