Venice: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 10/7/10 and 10/16/10 and 10/20/10 and …

19 10 2010

In April 2009, I attended a workshop production of a new hip-hop musical at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. With minimal staging, the composition of Venice already awed me. I wrote in my journal at the time that Venice was a reenergizing experience. Loosely based on Othello and echoing a range of contemporary political issues, the workshop gave me “hope for the future of musical theater.” After further development at Kansas City Rep, composer/lyricist Matt Sax and librettist/director Eric Rosen’s musical has now returned to the Kirk Douglas in an elaborate full production – and I have already seen it twice, with a third theater date scheduled for tomorrow. Not only does Venice give me hope for the future of the genre, it gives me hope for a better world. Perhaps my sentiments reflect all my reading on utopianism and performance lately, but “I can see the sun rise when I close my eyes. I can feel the morning, and I know the dawn is coming.”

Venice was once a city of peace, ruled by an inspirational Anna Monroe (the fierce Uzo Aduba). Yet the city was attacked by terrorists, killing Anna and hurling the nation into decades of war. The play opens on the 20th anniversary of the first attacks, when Anna’s son Venice (Javier Munoz) rises to power with an Obama-like message of change. Venice promises reunification and peace – overtly symbolized by his marriage to childhood sweetheart Willow Turner (Andrea Goss). Yet Venice’s jealous brother Markos (Rodrick Covington) twists and tangles the politician’s affairs so that the message of change – “Venice is for Venice” – eventually comes to emphasize the personal (Venice for himself) over the political (Venice for city’s collective needs).

Venice‘s narrative is undeniably complex, but the story and characters’ interiority are less important than the devices that mediate the audience’s encounter with the fable. Matt Sax deftly plays the “Clown MC,” a puppetmaster of the show. Poised behind his Mac computer, he types the Brechtian surtitles that foreground each scene, he narrates and comments on the action, and he sometimes even becomes absorbed in the narrative himself. Yet the Clown MC is only one part of a complex network; power and agency is layered and always mediatized in Venice. Overlapping, Matrix-like textual projections evoke news articles, while vibrant poster-like images of the political figures and “live” video feeds of news reports supercede the “live” performers. The cast visibly wears microphones that keep the audience at a constant distance from the “real,” and the hip-hop beats (directed by Curtis Moore) derive from a combination of two “live” musicians (visible onstage) and tracked recordings from a Mac (also visible onstage).

One can only grasp at meaning through this (sometimes overwhelming) array of media. But is this all-encompassing design so different from our current political situation in the US? We elect leaders based on articulate, galvanizing representations in the media – then often find ourselves disappointed with the ineffectual reality, the complexity of the political system and the challenges barring the way to actual change. Lyrics like “If you see something, say something” jump from the stage throughout Venice, evoking MTA posters and the dialogue of surveillance pervading the media since 9/11. In fact, I eagerly await Venice‘s arrival in NYC, where the political punch will be palpable.

I particularly applaud Rosen for transforming Othello – which is often perceived to be “all about” the racial otherness of the title character – to consider war, terrorism, violence, and the intertwined personal and political in a different configuration of race and gender. In fact, the original champion of peace in Venice is a powerful, dark-skinned woman: Anna Monroe. In Venice, race is not invisible – but neither is it the central concern. Rosen further crafts a tale that empowers women while truthfully conveying the violence and challenges of warfare for their lives. The prostitute Lady Hailey Daisy performs her sexuality with the panache of a Lil Kim or Lady Gaga, asserting agency over her own body to protect herself from the war. While Willow shows unfailing devotion to Venice (Desdemona to her Othello), Emilia emerges as a powerful and indendependent woman. The female solidarity between Emilia and Willow arguably exceeds their marriage bonds. Their friendship beautifully echoes that of Anita and Maria in West Side Story, particularly in the haunting Act II duet “The Wind Cried Willow.”

This is not to say that Venice is a perfect production. The personal does overly eclipse the political in Act II, and I was disappointed with a few aspects of the performances. While Javier Munoz’s rhythmic flows made him a stunning replacement Usnavi for In the Heights, he sometimes struggles to carry the melodies – and particularly the challenging riffs – required for the role of Venice. Many of the actors could use additional vocal training, the choreography could be cleaned, and the exaggerated acting of Rodrick Covington as Markos could be scaled back. There are also a handful of spots in the score where lyrics are rhythmically accented incorrectly; these stand out to a fellow composer’s ear, although perhaps not to everyone.

But the beautiful simplicity of “The Wind Cried Willow” has echoed in my head since the workshop production in 2009. Venice‘s hook-filled songs may be lyrically straight-forward, but they are often rhythmically intricate, driving, pulsing, and positively captivating. While sometimes going into hyperdrive, the choreography by John Carrafa and Tanisha Scott powerfully compliments the score. Rosen’s script and direction thrive in dynamic images rather than purely text, and Venice is a feast of complex, layered systems at play. Because – as the Clown MC would remind us – Venice is ultimately just a play. A shadow of reality – although quite a perceptive and dense shadow that begs to be seen multiple times, to be analyzed and discussed, and to move beyond the theater into actual social change. Go out and see the sun rise.

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6 responses

21 10 2010
VENICE: 75% – Sweet : Bitter Lemons

[…] SWEET But the beautiful simplicity of “The Wind Cried Willow” has echoed in my head since the workshop production in 2009. Venice‘s hook-filled songs may be lyrically straight-forward, but they are often rhythmically intricate, driving, pulsing, and positively captivating. While sometimes going into hyperdrive, the choreography by John Carrafa and Tanisha Scott powerfully compliments the score. Rosen’s script and direction thrive in dynamic images rather than purely text, and Venice is a feast of complex, layered systems at play. Because – as the Clown MC would remind us – Venice is ultimately just a play. A shadow of reality – although quite a perceptive and dense shadow that begs to be seen multiple times, to be analyzed and discussed, and to move beyond the theater into actual social change. Go out and see the sun rise. Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre […]

26 10 2010
Jose L Munoz

I think this review is as thorough and fair to all as one could expect. It was entertaining as well. I’ve read some others who seemed to have “phoned it in” and resort to name calling and “gossipy” themes. You raise the bar, maybe because you are an artist yourself, and don’t disregard I.Q. Thanks.

3 11 2010
staylorellis

Thank you, Jose! I’m glad you enjoyed the review – and, more importantly, the show. Expect another post on Venice soon!

7 11 2010
Venice: An Imaginary Piano Overture « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, has captivated much of my creative and scholarly attention lately. (See my review.) Below, I offer you an imaginary piano overture of Matt Sax and Curtis Moore’s score. […]

13 11 2010
Venice: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 7 dates and counting « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] memory, a spectral supplement to the multiple performances of Venice that I have attended and to my review. It is a rumination on one aspect of Matt Sax and Eric Rosen’s new musical that continues to […]

16 12 2010
A Year in Theater: 2010 « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] (Kirk Douglas Theatre) – Review, Dissertation Notes, and Overture One of the most promising, political, and artistically […]

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