Matt Sax (foreground left) leads the cast of “Venice” in a Broadway-style number.
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Book by Eric Rosen
Music by Matt Sax (additional music by Curtis Moore)
Lyrics by Matt Sax and Eric Rosen
Kirk Douglas Theatre (Culver City/Los Angeles)
Through Nov. 14
(See video preview below.)
Does “Othello” really need rock and hip-hop, an extensive rewrite, and the inclusion of 9/11 to make the story appealing to contemporary audiences? Well … perhaps you could argue that, but hip-hop with lyrics, score, and anemic choreography by folks who seem not to have ventured into the street? That does not make it. Now, not that it would be impossible for such an interpretation to work; however, “Venice”–a joint production of the Center Theatre Group and the Kansas City Repertory Theatre–is in no way a successful interpretation.
To do my own ghastly paraphrasing of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How does it fail us? Let me count the ways.” First of all, the average rapper on the Third Street Promenade has a message that flows more cleverly and clearly than most of what emanates from the Kirk Douglas stage. Secondly, missing completely is the athleticism that comes from hip-hop’s origins in the hood. And why does “Venice” keep sliding into a generic Broadway rock-opera formula? This is just a brief accounting of deficiencies. I could go on.
Before saying more, it should be noted that the cast, for the most part, gives the production their all. They do the best with what they have been given, dispatching it with energy and enthusiasm. They cannot be blamed if the choreography is simplistic. They execute it with gusto and precision and their voices are first rate, if overamplified. This is a production with a Broadway sound and look, but there’s no there there.
If a finger is to be pointed, it must be at Matt Sax. He is not only the composer and joint lyricist with Eric Rosen, he also functions as the “Clown MC,” interjecting rapid-fire pseudo rap commentary to either explain what is about to happen or what has just happened. This is rap that seems like it is written and performed by someone from a fine prep school trying too hard to be cool. His heart is into it, but where is the soul? A hand dangled over the crotch doth not a rap artist make. Fortunately, much of his unintelligible lyrics are projected piecemeal, like graffiti, on scrims that are part of the well-designed stage set. In a sense, it is like English translated into English, and as with opera supertitles, you will be glad the lines are there.
The original “Othello” is a convoluted tale. “Venice” is “Othello Light.” There are parallels to Shakespeare’s original, but many departures as well. Does that really matter? Probably not, but the overall effect is of a story forced into classical proportions, overwrought, and under-edited. It is not a story that flows well in a modern interpretation. Neither “Othello” nor “Venice” is intended to be funny, but it was hard to miss noting that quite a few audience members were laughing. Sadly a first-rate cast and a professional production are wasted on second-rate material.