“Venice,” the world premiere production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre which had its opening on Sunday, is a mash-up of styles that works on so many levels. The show was co-written and produced by two masterminds - wunderkind Matt Sax and Kansas City Rep artistic director Eric Rosen.
Sax first came on the scene with Rosen’s first show with the Rep, “Clay,” which also ran at The Kirk a few years ago to rave reviews. Rosen found Sax at Northwestern University and recognized his potential, working with him to develop “Clay.”
The one-man, hip-hop show was met with great acclaim and cemented Rosen as someone that was not going to pull punches with the Rep’s lineup. It also opened up the opportunity to start developing another project (“Venice”), co-sponsored through the KC Rep and the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.
The production is a big, sprawling story of love, betrayal and politics. A spring-tight rap fest/operetta that is specific to our times, and universally truthful about the nature of man and his eternal struggle against ego and cruelty.
The story is an old one. Venice, the illegitimate product of the rape of Anna, a civic leader, has risen to power in the post-apocalyptic city of Venice. His older brother, Markos, is jealous of Venice and resentful of the promotion of other members of the army before his own. When Venice announces his intention to marry one of the veritable aristocracies of the town, Willow Turner, in an effort to bring peace to the town, Markos sees an opportunity to unseat his brother and grasp at power with both hands.
My first impression was that it was a new take on Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of betrayal and suspicion between Iago and Othello. While this certainly has shades of this story, as I watched the performance, another biblical story emerged — that of Isaac and Ishmael. The second act focuses more on the resentment of Markos towards Venice, as flashbacks show their mother raising Venice to be a leader and telling Markos that the city will rely on his bastard brother for hope.
From a visual standpoint, Venice is a musical that fully harnesses the opportunities that the Kirk Douglas Stage presents. Much of the narrative is told in projections that seem to flow from the Clown MC’s (Sax’s narrator) computer onto the backdrops around the stage, eliminating the need for extraneous exposition.
For a guy with no musical training, Sax’s score is fantastic. Blending rap, hip-hop and opera seems far-fetched, but his rap sounds more like Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter songs and less like Jay Z. The juxtaposition works 95% of the time, with the other merely seeming too repetitive. By the curtain call, I found myself singing in harmony to the show’s anthem, "Sunrise."
The cast of Venice is strong throughout. Javier Munoz and Rodrick Covington play adversarial brothers Venice and Markos. Covington plays a thoroughly reprehensible character, while remaining irresistibly watchable. Markos does the most intense rapping in the show, spitting rhymes with such hate it’s palpable. Venice is more austere, looking much like a young Barack Obama.
The diminutive Andrea Goss is perfect as Willow Turner. Her nervous rocking seemed in character, whether it was or not, and her clear soprano was captivating.
The show-stealing performance was definitely Victoria Platt as Emilia, the conflicted wife of Markos. Caught between her fading love for her husband and an earnest yearning for peace, her heart-wrenching and beautiful duet with Willow on "The Wind Cried Willow" were haunting and strong. More than any other character, she possessed undeclared strength even in the midst of her moral ambiguity. Kudos also to Angela Wildflower Polk as “Tina Turner-esq” Hailey Daisy.
The show closes with a last set of rhyme from the Clown MC. His narration is never preachy, but in the ending monologue his rhymes hit with more focus, especially with the lines, “With this make believe, we make belief.” The culmination of the show with these words expresses the focus of Sax and Rosen’s work — to stimulate change of minds, of art and of community. With Venice, they have the potential to succeed on all counts.
“Venice” continues through November 14 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City (9820 Washington Blvd); For more info – call (213) 628-2772 or go to www.centertheatregroup.org.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging