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Review: “Venice” Goes Under Water at the Public Theater

June 20th, 2013

The Broadway Blog’s editor Matthew Wexler heads downtown to the Public Theater for the latest Public Lab productions. SCUBA equipment not included. 

Matt Sax (center) and the cast of  "Venice." (photo: Joan Marcus)

Matt Sax (center) and the cast of “Venice.” (photo: Joan Marcus)

U.S. scientists suggest that Venice (as in Italy) is sinking five times faster than local experts believe. That’s a far better projection than the theatrical nosedive running at the Public Theater through June 30.

This new work with book by Eric Rosen, music by Matt Sax and lyrics by the both of them, Venice is a post-apocalyptic hodgepodge that feels like one part Hunger Games and another part Othello. The storyline picks up 20 years after a horrific attack wiped out the majority of the population, leaving some to escape to the Safe Zone while other were left on the streets to fend for themselves. Willow (played by Jennifer Damiano) was one of the lucky ones while her childhood buddy, Venice (played by Haaz Sleiman), was left behind in the rubble along with his half-brother Markos (played by Leslie Odom, Jr.) who ends up as a military official for the corporate monstrosity that orchestrated the attack.

Backstabbing (and front stabbing), proclamations of love and a Beyoncé rip-off all make appearances as the people rise up to take back their city. If only from a logical perspective, the show loses credibility from the get-go as these long lost lovers reconnect after twenty years of separation. Weaving in and out of the story is the Clown MC (played by Matt Sax). The production may have been better served if its authors stepped back (Rosen also directed the piece) and allowed others to fine tune the material.

Jennifer Damiano and Haaz Sleiman in "Venice." (photo: Joan Marcus)

Jennifer Damiano and Haaz Sleiman in “Venice.” (photo: Joan Marcus)

Willow and Venice have communicated through the years by letter writing — having last seen each other when they were seven — and are madly in love upon their reunion. It just doesn’t make sense. Damiano’s utterly wooden performance doesn’t help. While the actress has an incredibly rich and pure tone to her voice (I actually shut my eyes during the performance so I could appreciate it without all of the surrounding histrionics), there is no sense of danger, urgency, or most of all — love. Sleiman doesn’t fare much better and looks impeccably groomed for your typical revolutionary.

If there is any glue holding things together, it is Leslie Odom Jr. as the power-hungry Markos. Showcasing a wide vocal range and tasked with musical styles from rap to soaring anthems, he manages to create and live in this imaginary world.

And what a world it is. Beowulf Boritt’s industrial set serves as a visual playground for the fantastical projection design by Jason H. Thompson. The eye candy is almost enough to distract from what is happening on stage, but this Venice is destined to sink.

While Venice doesn’t work on a lot of levels, it is important to recognize the challenges and triumphs of creating new and original works of musical theater. The production is part of The Public Theater’s Public Lab — a platform that offers both emerging as well as established artists a chance to showcase their work. Past shows have included Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Good Negro, among others. The Public has never shied away from challenging and controversial productions, embracing non-traditional casting and new forms of theatrical expression. And that is something that I hope stays afloat.

The Public Theater
Astor Place at 425 Lafayette Street
Through June 30

Here’s what other critics have to say about Venice:

 “The Public Lab is entitled to experiments gone wrong, but Venice is a Frankenstein monster of unusual ungainliness. Stitched from lifeless parts, this dystopian hip-hop Shakespeare musical is a bleakly preposterous mess. Imagine Urinetown played straight, for pseudomythic melodrama instead of comedy. Graft on plot points from Othello willy-nilly, and put it through a blender of sloppy rhymes; then picture a cast of musical-theater people performing it with the fervent seriousness of Smash’s Hit List. That’s this show, more or less, and it’s truly a trial. (Venice is two-and-a-half hours long. Had I not been reviewing it, I’d have bolted after five minutes.)” TimeOut New York

“There’s enough plot in Eric Rosen and Matt Sax’s “Venice,” the action-flooded new musical at the Public Theater, to fill a whole year in a Marvel comics series. Though it borrows some of its story from Shakespeare’s “Othello” and much of its tone from apocalyptic movie blockbusters like “The Dark Knight Rises,” this tale of a once-and-future civil war still seems to translate into two-dimensional panels as you watch it.” The New York Times

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