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Fem-Dom Fantasy is Whip-Smart in Venus in Fur at the Cleveland Play House

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Okay, imagine that you're forced to sit relatively motionless in a chair while someone teases you with a feather in some rather intimate and provocative ways. You can't stop it from continuing, you are helpless, and you've forgotten your safe word.

That's kind of the feeling one experiences when watching Venus in Fur, now at the Cleveland Play House. Written by the ever-witty David Ives, this play-within-a-play tantalizes and torments the audience in such an intricate manner, it is fully engrossing yet mysteriously incomprehensible. Kind of like sex, kinky or otherwise.

Thanks to two effective performances and spot-on directing by Laura Kepley, the 90-minute one-act fairly flies by. But because the play never plunges unashamedly into the shadowy realm of sexual obsession, where fantasies gain their power, a bit of the magic is lost.

It's all based on the novella Venus in Furs, written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in the 19th century, detailing Severin von Kushemski's lust to be dominated by an imperious woman—thus the origination of the term masochism. Ultimately in the novella, Kushemski finds whip-wielding Wanda von Dunayev, and his fantasy is realized.

In this play, Ives has created a present-day playwright and director, Thomas, who has just finished auditioning actresses for the role of Vanda in his theatrical retelling of the fem-dom classic. At the last moment Vanda stumbles in, a young woman who wrangles a reading with Thomas.

There are laughs aplenty as Vanda thrashes about in this audition setting, the theater world's version of a dominant-submissive nightmare. She is all at loose ends from arriving so late, soaking wet and off balance. But once they start reading from Tom's script, Vanda starts channeling her eponymous character in startlingly effective ways. She even seems to have memorized the whole script.

As the play progresses, Ives weaves curious juxtapositions with the power games being played during the audition and in Tom's play itself. Vanda becomes Wanda who becomes Venus. And Venus is, of course, the counterpart of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.

So is Vanda a struggling actress? Or did she appear suddenly out of a rainstorm, as if the clap of thunder and streak of lightning carried her down from high above? Or is it all the dream of Thomas?

Ives never makes any of these decisions for the audience (thank Zeus!), and instead toys with the possibilities, running the feather of his imagination over our brain, teasing out any small truths and epiphanies that might lurk in there.

As Thomas, Michael Brusasco is excellent as the frustrated play honcho looking for his ideal leading lady. But as Vanda/Wanda reveals herself, emerging from his own words, Brusasco's character doesn't seem totally and slavishly in her thrall. As a result, when he snaps back into his director/playwright persona, the contrast is less startling than it might be.

Vanessa Wasche as Vanda displays a goofy comic sense and has a fine time with many of the laugh lines, nailing them with precise timing ("I know all about sadomasochism. I'm in the theater."). But the playwright shies away from Vanda's total commitment as the domineering Wanda, thereby not feeding Thomas/Kushemski the absolute subjugation he seeks.

Of course, this is the devilish problem for a director. Where does the playacting stop and the power struggle actually begin? And who has the power, the dominant woman or the submissive man? Absent clear answers, director Kepley negotiates these subtleties with skill.

The runway set in the Second Stage theater, as fashioned by scenic designer Cameron Caley Michalak, provides an intimate playing space with the audience arrayed on both sides of the long stage. Trouble is, whenever you raise your eyes slightly from the proceedings, you leave the intensity of the moment and find yourself staring at a gallery of fleshy, nose-picking denizens of Cuyahoga County. And that's kind of a buzz kill.

Still, this Venus in Fur tantalizes in many significant ways, and then allows you to play with the meanings. And for many theatergoers, that is a fantasy come true.

Extended through Nov. 30 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org.

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