Aisle View: Venice Under Siege With Hip-Hop

There's a cutting-edge, politically provocative, modernistic new-style musical at the Public Theater that will have you literally dancing in the aisles. And then there's Venice, which opened last night at the Public's Anspacher while David Byrne's groundbreaking Here Lies Love continues its boisterous run at the same venue's LuEsther Hall.

Let's not call it an accident of unfortunate timing. Venice -- which was commissioned by the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles in 2008, with a 2010 premiere at the Kansas City Rep followed by a second mounting at the Center's Kirk Douglas -- is interesting, modernistic and new-style. It also contains some performances well worth seeing. But the social commentary in this adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello is heavy-handed, the plotting is ill-fitted, and the attempts at "provocative" are six years passé. Or perhaps forty years, as we seem to have seen musicals of this sort since forever. (Exhibit A: Catch My Soul, a rhythm & blues version of Othello produced in 1968 starring Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago.)

Venice is set in a fictional city of that name, "in the not-distant future." Which in itself is something of a warning sign. The action takes place twenty years after a massive terrorist attack which destroyed the government. In stepped a paramilitary corporation which -- for the protection of the citizens -- placed the city under brutal martial law. A heroic protestor from the wrong side fights for freedom while courting a heroic daughter of the ruling class. Together, they foment revolution and everyone does not live happily ever after.

Librettist/lyricist/director Eric Rosen and composer/lyricist Matt Sax have based their opus on Othello, yes, but the piece seems much more like the 2001 musical Urinetown. That is, Urinetown without the wit and without the bitingly satirical score. The Othello link seems to have been watered down over the years of development. The locale remains Venice, although nothing in the show suggests the Italian Venice (or the Californian one, either). Rather, it's just a depressed, mythical inland city/state like Cleveland or -- well, Urinetown.

Othello goes under the name Venice Monroe, and why not? Desdemona, who in Shakespeare's play sings the famous Willow Song, becomes Willow Turner. Cassio is Michael Victor; he gets blown up by a suitcase bomb at the end of the first act. Most oddly, the Iago character becomes Markos -- kind of like the Philippine Marcos (of Here Lies Love). In this variation of Othello, Iago is Othello's older brother. While I'm all for colorblind casting, this Iago is clearly intended to be played by a black actor; at least, it has been played by three black actors in the three productions thus far. So Iago is the Moorish one, and he -- spoiler alert -- kills Desdemona. Not quite what Shakespeare had in mind.

All of this transpires in hip-hop style to Mr. Sax's score. Sax was seen here in 2008 in the one-man hip-hop musical Clay, a collaboration with Mr. Rosen which played the Duke on 42nd Street under the auspices of LCT3. He is onstage again in Venice, this time as a hip-hop Shakespearean clown/narrator. If you don't find hip-hop compelling, you probably won't buy into Venice.

What the show does have is several arresting performances. The teenaged Jennifer Damiano was mighty impressive when she played Natalie, the daughter, in Next to Normal (starting in 2008). She did well enough as the leading lady of the musical known as Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, although her appearance in that opus was more of a stunt than a performance. As Willow, Damiano -- who last month turned 22 -- demonstrates that she is a "promising young actress" no more. Everything she does here is stunning, especially her two second act songs ("If Only" and "Willow"). Leslie Odom, Jr., who attracted enthusiastic attention in Leap of Faith and has been seen more recently playing with Christian Borle in Smash, is the Machiavellian Markos. Odom completely controls the situation, and the audience as well.

Claybourne Elder (lately Jeremy Jordan's brother in Bonnie & Clyde) and Victoria Platt offer strong support as Venice's best friend Michael and Markos' wife Emilia. Especially striking, in the small role of the hero's slain mother, is Uzo Aduba. An import from the Kansas City production, she doesn't have much to do but grabs you with "Anna's Song."

If Venice doesn't quite work, it should be noted that this is a production of the Public's Theatre Lab, which provides low-priced access to emerging works with scaled-down productions. For $15 a seat -- increasing to $45 during the recently announced extension, through June 30 -- Venice goes far beyond being a bargain. The performances of Damiano and Odom alone are reason enough to head over to the Public. But the natural response to Lab productions is to consider whether the show should proceed a step further. Yes, the Public presently has an exciting new musical that is likely to move forward and thrill audiences here and everywhere. Not Venice, though.