Venice, the new musical at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is an admirably ambitious attempt to incorporate hip-hop into the American musical theater tradition. I certainly prefer the scale of this effort by composer/narrator/co-lyricist Matt Sax and librettist/co-lyricist Eric Rosen to the miniature scope of Sax’s one-man Clay, his previous hip-hop show at the Kirk Douglas.
But creating a big hip-hop musical — a goal that was already achieved on a fairly sizable canvas by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights — wasn’t the only ambition behind Venice. It’s also an attempt to adapt Shakespeare’s Othello and to reflect on contemporary American society. These goals aren’t fulfilled nearly as well.
Sax and Rosen hope their show’s story resonates with the current political and cultural climate. This isn’t just something they say in interviews. In their fictional city-state of Venice, the new leader — also named Venice — promises Obama-esque ‘change’ (and he’s apparently biracial, too). The right-wing military-industrial complex tries to keep fear alive (to borrow a phrase from Stephen Colbert’s upcoming rally) by turning foreigners into scapegoats. A flashback to the terrorist attack that ignited two decades of war in Venice self-consciously recalls the cloud of dust that engulfed Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001 — although there is no talk of airplanes crashing into skyscrapers.
Yet despite all these cues to make us see ourselves in this fictional Venice, the analogies hardly slip effortlessly into place. As we approach a bitterly contested election in real-life America, the absence of any elections in Venice stands in stark contrast. Venice is run by generals, minus any trappings of democracy. The outcasts who fled the city 20 years ago are called the Disappeared – the same name that’s associated with dissenters in the Argentina of several decades ago. In Venice, state ceremonies are held at a restored central church. The government resembles an old-fashioned Latin-American military dictatorship, not the contemporary USA.
The idea to attract younger U.S. audiences with a flashy, hip-hop-based score and choreography — and with the idea that we’re glimpsing a possible American future – is somewhat diluted by the rather musty, banana-republic quality of these historical analogies within the narrative. I almost expected Venice (the leader) and/or his girlfriend to address the crowd with a round of “Don’t Cry for Me, Venice.”
In part, this problem is pre-determined by the decision to follow much of the plot of Othello. The parallels to Shakespeare’s original are frequently cumbersome, even though they’re seldom precise. In fact, some of them seem to be unnecessarily distorted for unclear or unproductive reasons.
For example, the Desdemona equivalent is here named Willow. I don’t know exactly how that happened, but it looks as if the Venice team spotted the little ditty titled “Willow” that Shakespeare’s Desdemona recalls, near the end of Othello, and seized on it as one of the few moments that Shakespeare provided that could logically be expanded into a musical number. So they not only inflated it into a climactic duet but also decided to re-name their Desdemona after the song — just in case someone missed the significance of it. As in the original, Willow/Desdemona recalls the song with a character named Emilia — but for whatever reason, Emilia’s name wasn’t changed.
Shakespeare’s elaborate plotting sequence involving a stolen personal object, which is used to cast suspicion of infidelity on Desdemona/Willow, is changed here in ways that undermine the drama. It’s Willow herself who calls her would-be husband’s attention to the fact that the item is missing — by doing so, wouldn’t she more or less exculpate herself, softening any inquiries into how the item was lost in the first place? The net effect is that there are fewer ostensible reasons for Venice (the man) to suspect Willow than there were for Othello to suspect Desdemona — which may be why (spoiler alert) it’s the Iago stand-in, not the Othello counterpart, who ends up killing Willow. This act makes him into even more of a one-sided villain than he is in the original.
Generally, the effort to use plot devices from Othello not only scales back the dramatic tension of the original but also hobbles the authors’ equally urgent priority of making their story feel at home in present-day America.
Strangely enough, Titus Redux, the show that immediately preceded Venice on this same stage, was also handicapped — even more so — by its goal of blending a Shakespearean story (Titus Andronicus) with a contemporary American setting and production design. Titus Redux wasn’t a Center Theatre Group production, as Venice is, so it’s probably coincidental that Venice follows a show with a similar inspiration. But for those of us who saw Titus Redux (not to mention In the Heights), Venice isn’t quite as original as it might appear at first glance.
Despite all this, the CTG-commissioned Venice doesn’t feel nearly as hoary as that other CTG show, Leap of Faith at the Ahmanson, or When Garbo Talks at International City Theatre — the other two big musicals that have opened around L.A. recently. These productions, as well as the non-musical FDR at the re-opened Pasadena Playhouse, are currently filling too many of our major stages with material that appears designed to appeal almost exclusively to aging audiences whose theatergoing choices are presumed to be based on associations with celebrities — either living (Brooke Shields, Ed Asner) or dead (FDR, Greta Garbo).
Venice, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tues-Fri, 8 pm; Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. No public performances (student matinees only) on Nov. 2,3, 9 and 10. Closes Nov. 14. 213-628-2772. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
It’s always interesting to see a familiar theater space in a new configuration. Recently I’ve noticed three such makeovers.
The U.S. premiere of Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver turns the Fountain Theatre into more of a thrust stage than usual. Normally, the audience sits on the west side of the Fountain and the actors perform on the east side. For this production, the audience wraps around the north side as well as the west side.
The Fountain is so intimate under any circumstances that the new arrangement doesn’t make much difference. The rows of seats that remain on the west side are not reconfigured into a natural curve — they’re pretty much at the same angle as usual, so the makeover doesn’t feel quite as complete as it would have, if the chairs had been individually placed. In fact, in my seat at the north end of one of the usual rows, I had to keep shifting my weight in the seat to see what was going on when the actors were occupying stage left.
Nonetheless, a Stephen Sachs staging of any new Fugard play, including this one, is an event that shouldn’t be missed. It’s a very short and small play — perhaps too short and small. The play could benefit from at least one more character, considering the gravity of what happens at the end. But the performances by Morlan Higgins and Adolphus Ward are big and glorious.
The revival of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out turns the Celebration Theatre into a full-fledged arena stage, with two rows of chairs added to the north wall of the space. I sat in the upper row on the north side and found that director Michael Matthews passed the challenging test of blocking the show in a way that seldom gave me the notion that I was looking at too many backs of actors’ heads.
Of course Take Me Out is known for the full-frontal nudity of its scenes set in a baseball team’s locker room and showers. Because of the in-the-round configuration, some of that nudity might be less full-frontal than usual, depending on which seat you’re in.
However, the actors’ privates appeared to be a little too close for comfort for the four somewhat elderly male/female couples who joined me on that north side of the house. During the first part of the play, the woman seated to my left averted her glance whenever genitals were visible, while another (who may have been one of the organizers of this particular theater party) looked back from the first row at her friends in our row and whispered the word “Sorry.” Two of the couples left at intermission, but the others stayed and joined in the well-deserved applause at the end.
Finally, if you recall Theatre 2 at Los Angeles Theatre Center — the LATC space that’s closest to Spring Street — you’ll remember that it has what feels like the most radically raked seating area in L.A. theater. For the Robey Theatre Company’s premiere of Kimba Henderson’s The Reckoning there, the audience is directed to enter from the upper-floor back-of-the-house instead of the usual first-floor front-of-the-house. An enormous Southern-plantation set dominates the front of the stage, to the extent that it juts into the usual seating area — but one level up, above that customary front-door entrance. Artistic director Ben Guillory says he wants the audience to appreciate the full impact of John Paul Luckenbach’s set when they enter — a view that can be obtained only from the rear.
When I tried to sit fairly close to the stage, Guillory asked me to move farther back, because he was concerned that my view of the upper reaches of the set would be blocked. Oddly enough, after intermission, we were allowed to enter through the lower-level front door and then climb the steps up to the seating area — but by then most of the audience had seen the set in all its glory, had staked out their seating locations, and weren’t tempted to sit too close.
Like some previous productions in this 298-seat space, The Reckoning is presented under the less expensive terms of Actors’ Equity’s 99-Seat Plan, so 199 of the seats are not allowed to be sold. No seating is permitted in the side sections, which are decorated with near-life-size puppets of famous African Americans. The huge set, the conscious effort to fill up the center of the seating area, and the large puppets watching silently from the sidelines — these features combine to create a visual illusion that we’re in a mid-size, big-deal theater. In fact, it’s hard to think of any standard 99-seat theater that could have accommodated this set.
Henderson’s play, about the racially separated strands of the families that inherited or didn’t inherit this plantation, veers close to soap opera. But as soap operas go, it has its absorbing moments — not only because of the historical racial issues that it probes, but also because it has been packaged in this imaginative and unconventional treatment of the Theatre 2 space.
The Train Driver, Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, east Hollywood. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Closes Dec. 12. 323-663-1525. www.FountainTheatre.com.
Take Me Out, Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 3 pm. Closes Oct. 31. 323-957-1884. www.CelebrationTheatre.com.
The Reckoning, Los Angeles Theatre Center Theatre 2, 514 S. Spring St., downtown L.A. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 3 pm. Closes Sunday. 866-811-4111. www.thelatc.org.
The Train Driver photo by Ed Krieger.