Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Theater in LA: the tragedy that is "Venice"

A hip-hopera of "Othello"? Why yes that does sound fascinating! Why don't we update the setting, so it can ominously and vaguely resemble Obama! What a great idea! Let us also have some dancing ripped from the music videos of Michael Jackson!

This must have been the conversation between the creators of "Venice," which premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theater last October, hopefully on its way to a Broadway run. Eric Rosen and Matt Sax have created one of the strangest and least successful adaptations of Shakespeare that I have ever come across.

As we all know, Los Angeles is not a mecca of great theater. This is not to say that there are not great, small theater companies producing good work (e.g. East/West. Colony, Odyssey, etc), but it is nowhere on the scale of New York, or even Chicago. The Mark Taper Forum is the largest theater in the city that has consistently fostered new talents who have gone on to great success. For instance, the world premieres of "Angels in America," "Children of a Lesser God," and "Zoot Suit" took place at the Taper.

The Kirk Douglas, which is part of the Center Theater Group that includes the Taper and the Ahmanson, is trying to put on new works and revivals that can transfer to Broadway. However, as of yet the Douglas has failed to mount anything that meets the criteria of great theatrical work.

Reinventing Shakespeare is a mainstay of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theater, but what marks a failed adaptation? Rosen's and Sax's freestyle vision of Othello fails to take on the emotions of Othello, and rather adapts it for some vague political purpose. There are so many inconsistencies and missteps that your attention is always distracted from the music and dancing (which may not be a bad thing, but more on that later).

The play is set at some point in the near future in a city called Venice (is it the Italian Venice or some American city? Who knows!). Some postapocalyptic event has happened and now the city is under the siege of terrorism and its government is operating under emergency powers. The main character is also named Venice. Was he named after the city? Who knows! He is some supposed savior for the city, and his parents were somehow involved in rulign the city before the apocalypse.

Just this convoluted backstory takes at least fifteen minutes to explain. And in this musical everything is told at least three times: once by the narrator (played by Sax whose bug eyes disturbed me throughout the night); second, by the characters in their dialogue and/or music; and third, the narrator has to summarize what we have just seen.

Trying to figure out where the parallels between Shakespeare and this work begin and end is a supremely frustrating act. Why has everyone's name been changed, except for Amelia's? Why is this version of Iago so one-dimensionally evil (and why does he have to shout the entire time?)?

And then there is the music... There is absolutely no need to have a role of the narrator who tells us everything, except to satisfy the ego of co-creator Matt Sax. Did anyone not teach him the cardinal rule of "Show, Don't Tell"? The pedestrian and prosaic lyrics point to the banal music it is placed over. One song, which actually elicited twitters of laughter from the audience because of its banality, contained the following rhyme: "Willow, Willow, Willow. Get your head off the pillow, pillow, pillow." This is deep stuff.

My visceral distaste for this piece is not shared by every critic. True, critics for the "LA Times" and "Variety" panned it, but "Time Magazine" named it the best musical of 2010. Did Richard Zoglin see a different show? Zoglin writes, "While Sax's rhymes may have less street authenticity than Lin-Manuel Miranda's similar hip-hop narration for In the Heights, they are also less sentimental and carry more operatic grandeur." 

I could not disagree more. "In the Heights" was  a breathless and endlessly innovative piece that married the traditions of the musical to hip-hop. For Zoglin, the songs are sentimental because they deal with emotions, but at least they were memorable fast-paced and moved the story. I also saw no "opoeratic grandeur," rather I saw derivative dancing, uninteresting staging, and heard unmemorable music.

The Douglas did not help itself with its next play for the season, a revival of "Much Ado About Nothing." As Justin and I were on our way to the theater that evening, I asked: "So who is in this production? Anyone famous?"

Justin: "Yeah, Helen Hunt."

I almost threw up in my lap. Helen Hunt's Twelfth Night at Lincoln Center over a decade ago was resoundingly panned. Her delivery of lines has no variance and pays no attention to the meter (well until she does pay attention to the meter and she goes into a sing-song voice). There are no shaded emotions in her portrayals, no growth, no change. Also, I am still angry that she stole the Oscar from a group of far more deserving actresses in 1997 (Judi Dench in "Mrs. Brown," Julie Christie in "Afterglow," and Helena Bonham Carter in "Wings of the Dove;" for the gods' sakes, Kate Winslet was better in "Titanic").

When we reached the theater box office, it turned out we had tickets for that day's matinee, not evening performance. Rather, than being devastated, my first thought was: Maybe this is divine intervention to stop us from seeing this bastardization of Shakespeare. Unfortunately, they found a pair of tickets for us.

I always find it amazing when actors and a director are able to conspire together to efface humor from what is a comedy. In a play that focuses on people who hate each other and then fall in love with one another, I laughed for a total number of ... wait for it ... one time!

Helen Hunt was awful. I  kept hoping she would get sick and never return to the stage, and then Emma Thompson would take her place. But alas and alack, that never occurred. On top of wretched performances, a seemingly pointless updating of the play to 1940's era wine country, Lyle Lovett performed songs throughout the play. Why this was necessary or desired, no one will ever know. His songs brought the pacing of the play to an utter dead stop. One song went on so long, I forgot what was happening between the characters.

Let us just hope that the Douglas' next season is an improvement over this one. Then again, Sesame Street on Ice would be preferable to either of these two shows.

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