Threshold's Venus in Fur revisits an 18th-century S&M novel 

I'm Your Venus

Laurens Wilson plays a director searching for the perfect vamp, which he finds in Katie Holland

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Laurens Wilson plays a director searching for the perfect vamp, which he finds in Katie Holland

Those who know Greg Tavares from the local Charleston comedy scene probably think of him as that guy from The Have Nots. An improviser, a comedian. What they may not know is that he has an MFA in directing from the University of Nebraska, and he's equally at home working within the confines of a tight, dramatic play as he is spouting improvised insanity.

This year during Piccolo Spoleto, the Threshold Repertory Theatre is giving him an opportunity to showcase this side of himself as he directs what promises to be a heady, emotionally and sexually charged play. Venus in Fur is billed as a comedy, but it promises to be an intellectual adventure for viewers of all mature ages.

Why mature? Well, despite its comic status, the listing on Threshold's website advises parental discretion, due to subject matter and graphic language. The play was written in 2010 by David Ives as a quirky adaptation of an 18th-century novel about S&M, the first of its kind. Long before the days of 50 Shades, an Austrian wrote a novel about a man who loved a woman so much, he asked her to be his sex slave. A battle of sexual tension ensued, and that is the focus of Ives' play.

In his version, a playwright/director is auditioning women to be the lead in his play about — you guessed it — that same novel. It's a circular structure, referencing a play-within-a-play-about-a-novel. At the play's outset, the director is angry and frustrated by his own failure to find the right woman to play his vampish role, when in walks Vanda. She's perfect for the role of the sexy vixen. So perfect, in fact, that as the audition continues and written lines are traded back and forth, the division between theater and reality gets smaller and smaller. Soon it becomes hard to decide where the audition ends, and real life begins.

"Real life," in this case, is a part of the play. We think. But that's sort of what the play is getting at — where are the boundaries between life and fiction drawn? And when can they be blurred?

Tavares saw Venus in Fur on Broadway during its Tony Award-winning 2012 run and walked away from the theater knowing he wanted to be a part of it. He started seeking rights before rights were even available, and thus this is one of the earliest productions of Venus in Fur in South Carolina since the play closed on Broadway.

But a play like Venus in Fur is not without its challenges. In the first place, the entire production takes place in 75 uninterrupted minutes, with only two characters. Tavares faced unique difficulties in casting — the actors needed to be engaging, good looking, and they needed to be charismatic enough to command an audience's attention for that length of time. They also needed to handle the blend of a classical play nested within a contemporary plotline. In short, they needed to be a perfect blend of beauty and skill.

He found his actors in Laurens Wilson and Katie Holland, both veterans of the Charleston theater scene. Tavares has known them both for years, but still they had to come for upwards of three callback auditions apiece, as Tavares was painfully aware that for a show with only two actors, a director cannot mess up casting.

There will be humor, and fun, but drama as well. Venus in Fur is going to push boundaries.

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