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Hugh Bickley as Thomas Novachek and Kate Scott as Vanda rehearse a scene from “Venus in Fur” earlier this week. The play is being produced by the Montana Rep, a professional theater company in residence at the University of Montana, for a two-day run this weekend.

It's just a convenient coincidence that the Rep is producing "Venus in Fur" during the Zootown Fringe Festival.

The company had already decided to stage David Ives' exploration of sexual politics and set the dates when it learned it would fall right during the Fringe.

The material couldn't be better suited to the weeklong festival of contemporary performing arts.

"It's pretty out there," said Greg Johnson, executive director of the Rep, citing the two-person play's political, sexual and artistic themes.

"Venus" amounts to a "90-minute battle between a man and a woman," Johnson said.

The play, which tempers its seriousness with sharp humor, had a successful run on Broadway in 2012 and has been presented by regional theaters around the U.S.

In the play-within-a-play, a New York writer-director named Thomas is working on an adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 19th century novella, "Venus in Furs."

(That particular author and his book's themes spawned the term "masochism.")

"Thomas Novachek is smart," said Hugh Bickley, who played Tom Buchanan in the Rep's touring production of "The Great Gatsby" earlier this year.

"He's a young hot director. He is somewhat past his prime. He's pushing his 30s. Everything he says is sort of dripping with sexism. He doesn't realize that."

He's not "Mad Men" level sexist, but Bickley said he's "zeitgeist sexist."

Thomas is exhausted after an entire day yielded few actresses right for the key female role, and suddenly an actress named Vanda walks in.

The audition requires her to strip off her clothes, and then the two enter into their dialogue.

The New York Times described it as a "suspense-packed study of the erotics (and semiotics) of power ... (that) provides a seriously smart and very funny stage seminar on the destabilizing nature of sexual desire: vanilla-flavored, kink-festooned or anything in between.”

In the role of Vanda is Kate Scott, who worked as female understudy and wardrobe on the Rep's touring productions of "Gatsby" and "Biloxi Blues."

She also performed in Bickley's original science-fiction inspired play "Holocene" last September and local actor/director Sam Williamson's "Macbeth."

The Vanda character has a magnetism about her.

"She's one of those people who walks into a room and is just a whirlwind. I think everybody knows at least one person like that," she said. "... And it just feels like their neurons are firing are so much faster than the rest of the world's."

Bickley concurred, calling her a "force."

"I like to say that Thomas is the guy having the experience – she's the experience of this play. It's almost like Othello and Iago. He's Othello, he's the title character. He's the one going through the changes, but Iago's the one driving the play. And it's the same with Thomas and Vanda," he said.

She challenges Thomas' condescending attitude toward women, scene after scene.

"Vanda knows how to pull those strings, she knows how to push those buttons. She does that throughout the whole thing," he said.

Scott said, "We say a lot of things in our lives that we don't really think about in terms of sexism or racism or bigotry. And it's not until something like this pushes you a little bit further that you're like, 'Oh, I'm not as nice a person as I thought I was.' Or, 'I need to change my dialogue.'"

Scott hopes it "sparks a decent conversation" about the ending and viewers' interpretations of it – both she and Bickley think afterward people will parse whether or not Thomas is being set up and punished, or given a mirror and released from his own mindset.

***

The Rep, a professional theater company in residence at the University of Montana, is best known for its annual touring productions, which reach numerous stages around the country.

It is staging "Venus" at the Downtown Dance Collective as part of its Visions and Voices series, which is dedicated to bringing contemporary works on a smaller scale around downtown Missoula.

The mission statement is "to investigate, read, workshop and eventually produce new and challenging works for the stage that demonstrate evidence of vision and voice."

The most recent entries in the series were "Leveling Up," Deborah Zoe Laufer's play about growing up (and piloting drones) at the Crystal Theatre in April, and Anne Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation," a view of human interaction in the context of a community acting class, in 2014 at the DDC.

Johnson, who's directing "Venus" himself, said it's enjoyable to do something outside the sphere of the Rep's touring productions, which aim for great American plays.

"Venus" is novel for Scott and Bickley, neither of whom have acted in a two-person play before.

"It's challenging," Scott said. "It's definitely challenging. But it's enjoyable because you get to connect with that person for that period of time on that level of intensity."

Bickley described the 90-page script, almost all dialogue, as "a beast."

"No entrances, no exits, we're on stage the entire time," he said. "In a way that's relief, you just dive in and you don't come up for air until the very end."

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