Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Under Water

November 06, 2010

Rodrick Covington, Erich Bergen, and Javier Munoz in Venice Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

I’ve got nothing against updating a classic work in order to increase its relevance and/or appeal to a modern audience. In fact, I don’t have a problem with substantially changing a revered standard for effect either, most times. But like everything in life, you can go too far, and exhibit A this week is Venice the new musical from Matt Sax and Eric Rosen now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City. The source material is Shakespeare’s Othello, which is just as likely as anything to make a good musical in today’s theater world. (I mean if someone is willing to commit Chekhov’s The Seagull to the musical stage why not Othello?) It doesn’t make a good one in this instance, but you can’t blame anyone for not trying.

Sax and Rosen take Othello and transport it to the de rigeur unspecified future dystopia. If you ever though Shakespeare was too stingy with characters, sub-plots, and narrative turns, Venice might be the show you’ve been waiting for. It’s crammed to the rafters with a war between unspecified parties, refugees, terrorist bombings, vengeful half-brothers, and peace movements to top off all the standard elements of the original. Did I mention musically it comes from the hip-hop vernacular? Oh yes it does - complete with dancing drill teams in fatigues like in an 80s music video and even a Lil’ Kim-inspired character. It’s not that any individual element in the show is a bad idea; it’s just that all of them at the same time definitely are. Worse yet, the dialog is often fleshed out with clichés from 20 years ago – “Print that in your papers” challenges Markos, the Iago character in Venice, to a group of journalists in a press conference scene. Even stranger, with virtually nothing removed from the basic Othello storyline, the authors did manage to remove perhaps the most critical element in the original play’s theme, the role of jealousy in the downfall of the title character and his family. Venice’s hero, Venice, seems almost entirely a victim of circumstance and his jealousy is inserted as almost an afterthought in the final scenes.

I wish I could say that the show was musically more satisfying. It is not wince inducing, but with so much ready-made excellent hip hop available virtually on demand, the watered-down theater version needs to be quite a bit tighter to deliver the goods. Plus with lyrics like “The wind cries Willow, Willow, Willow/Get your head above the pillow, pillow, pillow” one begins to wonder who exactly this is supposed to appeal to. Not that the performances of the cast aren’t good. I was especially taken with Rodrick Covington’s Markos who had a quick mastery of the verbiage in his part and really connected the music to the feelings underneath. Matt Sax makes an appearance in the show himself as an almost completely superfluous narrator, Clown MC. It’s his show, so more power to him, but I’d suggest taking a lesson from Verdi at this point and revisiting Venice with a keen eye and a sharp pair of shears. It’s onstage through the 14th in Culver City.

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“The wind cries Willow, Willow, Willow/Get your head above the pillow, pillow, pillow” is my favorite bad lyric of the year.
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