Venice: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 7 dates and counting

13 11 2010

While little kids draped in white bedsheets wandered the streets for Halloween, the Kirk Douglas’ production of Venice had me thinking about another kind of ghost.

This post has been in the works since the beginning of October when I first saw Venice. In the midst of music directing a show, working on my dissertation prospectus, and reading for qualifying exams, I have seen Venice seven times now. This is not particularly unusual. I see theater like many friends see movies: on repeat so that I can soak in all the details and nuances, so that I can hold images and performances and songs in my head – and in my body. Who can resist throwing their hands up or nodding along with the beats of Venice? And catchy songs are always automatically translated into my fingers, ready to play at the piano when I get home. (See my Imaginary Overture.)

This is also why I write: to recall and reflect on a theatrical moment, to pull the past back into my present, however incompletely. This post is an invocation to 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 fascinate me, to draw me back to the theater time and time again. Get ready for a rough start to potential dissertation thoughts – and if you haven’t seen Venice yet, beware spoilers. (And get to the theater – Venice closes this Sunday!)

Broadly, my dissertation is interested in embodied temporalities in the genre of musical theater. I am fascinated by how the musical creates a layered array of temporalities even in the most “integrated,” linear, book-based musical. Musical numbers often dip into memory and project into the future, speed and slow time, accumulate meanings through circularity and repetition, and enact other embodied temporal manipulations. These performative and temporal excesses have the potential to contest “natural” constructions of linear, progressive time, as well as concordant constructions of gender, racial, and sexual identity – pointing to a future that embraces different ways of being in the world. In this realm of broad theoretical thought, I encounter Venice and offer a sketch of some dissertation thoughts.

A quick plot summary: Venice was once a city of peace, ruled by an inspirational Anna Monroe. 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 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. Yet Venice’s jealous brother Markos 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 the city’s collective needs).

Ghosting in Venice

Venice opens on an empty set illuminated by a ghostlight. Every theater has a ghostlight: a caged bulb on a stand, left onstage overnight for safety – but the ghostlight also figures prominently in theatrical superstition. After all, almost every theater is said to have a ghost, often a spirit of a past performer. In Venice, the ghostlight foreshadows the specters of history that intermingle in the play’s present. These are not vengeful ghosts of a horror movie. Rather, Venice emphasizes the importance of a living engagement with historical memory as a path to a more just future. The past is never simply past, but continues to interact with and inform our present: our responsibility to past generations is inseparable from our responsibility to the generations to come.

The city of Venice, then, is a palimpsest of memories. Following terrorist attacks that killed leader Anna Monroe, 20 years of war have devastated the city. When Anna’s son Venice finally rises to power, he begins rebuilding the nation with an inspiring message of change. Venice Monroe welcomes the disappeared (those who sought refuge from the war in the safe zone) back to the newly-secured city. Although the rebuilt cathedral in the central square may gleam of a fresh start, the space still reverberates with the past: memorial candles flicker throughout the space and a fully embodied Anna Monroe revisits her son. Scaffolds point to the ongoing process of reconstruction, and mutable video-projected backgrounds illuminate the layers of history in the setting.

The city’s new leader sees the past as quintessential to understanding the present and envisioning the future. In “Waited All These Years,” Venice invokes his mother’s presence to help him reestablish peace: “I have waited all these years for your face to reappear right before my eyes. I feel your presence here, and I know that you are near.” In addition to the personal memory of Anna, Venice invokes the city’s collective memory at a press conference to announce his Sunrise Policy for peace. On the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that started the war and killed his mother, Venice will marry his childhood sweetheart Willow at the newly-rebuilt chapel: a symbolic reunification of the city. Reporters swarm around the podium for the chance to ask a question, and live video feeds double the ceaseless action. These dominating video projections can be considered a specter of the ever-elusive “present”; slightly out of sync with the “live” action itself, the present is always and already slipping into the coexistent past. But in the midst of this hustle and bustle, time slows as Venice remembers his mother’s dream of peace.  “But my mother had a dream, a dream, a dream.” The once-frenzied reporters pause and turn to face the audience in a choreographed, collective reflection of the years before the war. They remember and repeat Anna’s message: “It’s our responsibility to be the change we want to see.” Venice espouses a concept of change that imbricates the past in the present, and the crowds follow.

As I mentioned in my earlier review, Venice‘s structure is far from a linear, “integrated” narrative. Brechtian devices such as projections, scene titles, and a Clown MC narrator break up the action, and a Shakespearean prologue and epilogue frame the evening’s entertainment. Within this episodic structure, Rosen’s book shatters a linear narrative history and forcefully jostles the audience between the play’s past and present: these times are revealed to be imbricated in one another, rather than mutually exclusive. This highly mediated, disintegrated structure also creates an engaging dialectic between identification with the characters and awareness of the play’s constructedness, or awareness of the play as a play: a theme that will return later in this post.

The Clown MC pointedly draws the audience’s attention to the scene title preceding “Anna’s Song” and lyrically foregrounds the episode as past: “Ladies and gentlemen, veterans, how did we arrive at the time …”  This song dips into a memory of Anna Monroe’s leadership before the terrorist attacks that ravaged the city, yet this past episode is fully voiced and reembodied in the present with the fierce Uzo Aduba at the helm. In a vibrant green dress, the dark-skinned Anna raises her rich, grounded voice and a clinched fist of justice to unify the nation. In contrast to the black-clad masculine terrorist threat, this musical number genders “peace” as feminine and temporally locates it in the 1950s United States by bright, floral dresses with cinched waists. This seems a rather odd and potentially essentializing choice. After all, the 1950s were an era of both racial segregation and strictly-defined gender roles. Yet Anna’s layered positioning as a dark-skinned woman, both a mother and political leader, serve as fascinating counterweights and complications to traditional subject positions. Venice is notable for carving out a layered array of gender roles for women and offering up a utopian multicultural vision onstage – although men are strictly circumscribed within the bounds of militaristic masculinity. (Don’t ask, don’t tell.)

Anna leads the city to stand and chant as one in an anthem of peace that (defies? precedes? exceeds?) language: “La la la la la, la la la la la. Ah ahhhh, ah ahhhhh. La la la la la.” Its simple melodic contour invites participation, and gentle, undulating hand motions harmonize with this vocal, shared by the men and women of Venice. To be sure, Anna has a masterful command of language and verbally articulates her vision to thousands gathered in the central square: “Let us be decent and generous. Don’t let hate better us. Show the kids ahead of us: we can stand as one.” Yet the syllabic chorus is the song’s captivating hook, repeated throughout the show in “pure” vocals and the body. In Richard Dyer’s terms, Anna’s anthem articulates a powerful vision of how utopia would feel rather than how it would be organized: a kinaesthetic rush of promise, while never linguistically articulating the structure of that hoped-for future. As Anna exits stage at the end of the song, she stretches her arm to present-day Willow – who echoes the anthem of the past before bridging into the anthem of the new day, “Sunrise.”

Recurring choreographic and musical signifiers point to the past’s containment in the present. Particularly as the war resumes in Act II, distinctions between the past and present entirely collapse: fully embodied ghosts of the accumulating dead inhabit the same stage space as the living, begging to be remembered. It is the rejection of these dead that leads to Venice’s devastation.

The climax of Act II is tellingly titled “Put Out the Light”: Venice intends to permanently extinguish the opening number’s metaphoric ghostlight as he and his brother Markos embark on an ethnic cleansing of the city, banishing all the non-native residents. The ghosts just behind the blown-out cathedral walls each hold up a flickering votive, prepared to be extinguished and permanently forgotten. In a reversal of “Waited All These Years,” Anna Monroe must now invoke her son’s presence; she begs him to remember, yet Venice twists his mother’s anthem of peace into a taunting rejection: “Left me all alone!” While never touching her, he mimes her rejection – pushing her away as the ghosts’ circular chant “Put out the light, put out the light, and then …” impels a narrative drive to violence.

As suggested earlier, Willow and Anna are indelibly linked. Musically, Willow is the living echo of Anna’s dream of peace. These characters are also linked through a cherished object: in “Waited All These Years,” Anna gives Venice a hand-crafted piece of jewelry that once belonged to her mother, now the only remaining object that physically ties Venice to his heritage. So much of Venice’s personal history is already embedded in this necklace, which then passes to Willow as an engagement gift. The object history of this necklace – weaving from one character to another throughout Venice – is a site of palimpsestic time, ever accumulating new meanings in interaction with the present. The necklace is subsequently stolen by Emilia to ameliorate her husband Markos, who twists the object to his own purposes. By placing Willow’s necklace in the deceased Lt. General Michael Victor’s hands, the puppetmaster Markos convinces Venice of his wife’s infidelity.

The rejection of Willow and Anna are thus entangled. These women invoke Venice’s memory and advocate for a brighter future built on the foundations of the past: “Your mother had a dream, a dream of peace, and we will get there. The tides are turning in the sea, I see relief from times of despair” – yet Markos drives the narrative necessity to put out the light, to rid the city of all relics of the past, to “purify” the city and start anew. When Emilia reveals her part in the object history of this necklace, her unwitting culpability in Markos’ scheme, Venice relents – but Markos completes the narrative drive to violence and murders Willow.

With this loss of his love, Venice cannot conceive of a way to move on: but Emilia takes up the deceased Anna and Willow’s cry for an incorporation of the past into the present. “It’s time to grow up now, if we, we, weeeee are truly to stand as one. Let us chant as one. We haven’t begun to see the sun!” Emilia seamlessly interweaves Anna’s anthem and Willow’s “Sunrise” in this promise for a new day that takes responsibility for the fully-embodied ghosts that surround the living. It’s time to pay the price.

Living with Our Ghosts

But back to that Brechtian and Shakespearean framework. The specters that haunt this play are not merely ghosts of a fictional past, but ghosts of our own past and present, which is ever slipping into that time we call “past.” While audience members often identify with the main characters in Venice, the distancing framework invites the audience to simultaneously recognize the “real world” elements that compose this musical. A spectator might find echos of older theater and literature ranging from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to West Side Story, as well as rhetoric and symbols that resonate with familiar historical events and cultural constructs. Hip-hop is not merely a contemporary and engaging style of music and dance in Venice, but an all-encompassing aesthetic of sampling: incorporating and transforming elements of our past to write a different future.

As I mentioned in my earlier review, 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. The multiculturalism of Venice‘s cast is itself a resonant utopian gesture. Furthermore, Rosen crafts a tale that empowers women while never shying away from the realities of violence and the challenges of warfare in their lives. The original champion of peace in Venice is a powerful, dark-skinned woman whose “dream” echoes that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 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. And while Willow shows unfailing devotion to Venice (Desdemona to her Othello), Emilia emerges as a powerful and indendependent female figure. The 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.” When Willow dies, Emilia – not Venice – is by her side.

From the annals of history come Nazi-like rhetoric of ethnic cleansing, memory candles echoing Argentina’s desaparecidos, and post-9/11 surveillance strategies that palpably collapse into our present moment in the United States: “If you see something say something,” the soldiers chant. The musical’s intense mediatization also bespeaks the US’s present: 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 derive from a combination of two “live” musicians and tracked recordings from a computer. 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 such as the Obama-like Venice based on articulate, galvanizing media representations – then often find ourselves disappointed with the ineffectual reality, the complexity of the political system and the challenges barring the way to actual change.

Where, then, does Venice locate the potential for change? In individuals who work within and against these systems: in small, singular acts of love that let us be great for a single instance, that give us just one moment to stop time, to exceed the system, to shine.

This message is most fully embodied in Theodore Westbrook’s second act song “Let Me Be Great.” The seconds of Theo’s life slow down as the Clown MC gives leave for the dead man to poetically recount and relive his singular moment of aliveness, just before Markos strangled him. With my limited knowledge of hip-hop music, it seems that “Let Me Be Great” plays in and against a genre of rap songs that defines “greatness” as fame, fortune, and women: the contemporary American dream. Born to privilege, Theo expects this dream to become his reality: “All my life they told me, ‘Boy, when you get older, you can have whatever you like. Just because I had means and because of my genes, thought that she [Willow] could be my wife.” But Willow, of course, falls in love with Venice, shattering Theodore’s expectations. Theo hires Markos to help secure Willow’s affections – a plot which the jealous Iago-like figure is only too happy to twist. But when the scheme turns violent, Theo radically redefines what it means to be “great.”

Small acts of showing and sharing love are what subsequently define Theo’s (brief) existence: this timid man confesses his true feelings for Willow and stands up to Markos, refusing to be a pawn in his destructive plot any longer. Another pawn in Markos’ plan, Emilia likewise does something great when she reveals her own participation in Markos’ plot and attempts to save Willow. Greatness is not a stable identity, but an action: however small and however fleeting. Greatness involves radical and frightening vulnerability: opening ourselves up, confessing our wrongs, admitting our own past in order to foster a more just future.

Is it any surprise, then, that these “shades of Venice” conclude the show by stepping out of character and echoing this anthem of greatness – which is choreographically evocative of Anna’s anthem of peace? As an audience, we are invited to rise up and take hands with these ghosts of the stage: as individuals and as a collective, we have a responsibility to our past to remember, reflect, and rewrite to point towards a brighter future. “It’s our responsibility to be the change we want to see.” The curtain call reprise of “Sunrise” invites the audience to clap and even sing-along. This is no mere marketing ploy for a cast album (after all, there is no cast album yet!). Rather, Venice sends the audience out of the theater with such tuneful hooks as an invocation to our own memory as a drive to action: an invocation to small acts of greatness that vitally incorporate our past in our present.

In my seven times seeing Venice so far, I have taken an array of friends – which has inspired countless conversations, both at the theater and beyond. It has struck me that, even friends who were ambivalent about the show at first, have continued processing the musical in the days following; several have even ended up reevaluating their initial stance on the musical, seeing it again and recommending it to friends. The songs echo in the audience’s heads for weeks, and the questions and issues raised reverberate beyond the stage. If Venice is effecting this sort of invocation to memory, dialogue, and action, then it is truly doing something great.




One response

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 innovative musicals I have […]

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