If you took every major plot point from the well known Shakespeare plays, tossed them into a jar and shook it, the result that spilled out would look very much like this snappy production. Venice is a collection of iconic stories and the icons themselves told with precision and a dash of charm. It does get carried away with the sound of its own lovely voice, however, and could use a healthy trim.
The problem would be - this is a rich banquet - what to cut?
Matt Sax (Clown MC) welcomes us in Shakespearean Hip Hop and turns time upside down from the get go. We are then introduced to the panoply of plot lines. Venice is a country (?) that was divided by a civil war. The son of the resistance leader is also named Venice - Venice Monroe (Haaz Sleiman). He is in love with the daughter of the murdered President Willow Turner (Jennifer Damiano) who has been in exile for 20 years. Now she is returning to unite with her beloved, after she dumps her current protector, old friend, and inheritor of the industrial complex that wants to keep everyone separated so that they can run the country – Theodore Westbrook (Jonathan-David). Theodore will do anything to stop Willow from uniting with Venice (the man and the place). He relies on his major domo Markos Monroe (Leslie Odom Jr.) to do what needs to be done. Markos will carry out his orders, Iago sytle, even though it means betraying his own brother.
Romeo, Juliet, Othello, Desdemona, and Iago – we even get a little Hamlet tossed in with the extraordinary performance of Uzo Aduba as the deceased mother of Venice and Markos. Markos was born out of love and Venice was the result of rape. Hmmn – Romulus and Remus???
Script wise, it is not a bother to have so many layers, but the fact that each is given fairly equal weight makes the play top-heavy. The actors – especially the fine Mssrs. Odom and Sax – are solid in every way. But because the script goes wide instead of deep we are deprived of knowing them all that well. The one we seem to know the best is Markos, and Mr. Odom does not let us down in his performance. The addition of the character Hailey Daisy (the excellent Angela Polk) took us way off track as did the several (albeit beautiful) duets between Damiano and Victoria Platt (Emelia Munroe). As the king said to Mozart – “too many notes”.
Less developed is the love story between Venice and Willow. Where there is supposed to be passion expressed only through letters for two decades, there is a polite restraint. This could have been remedied directorially by giving Ms. Damiano the chance to throw some color into her characters, but as it is she is polite and dull (and clothed in costume choices that do not help at all) and is only allowed one musical number in which she can rock the house. Ditto Mr. Sleiman who is also monochrome in his portrayal of the Good Man. The resulting chemistry between these two is completely missing, and considering the fact that the fate of an entire country rests on this relationship, it is a blow to the story.
You will not be sorry to sit through this show because the actors deliver 110% and the music is sometimes glorious. There is a ton of good stuff going on here, and perhaps the next time out a new set of directorial eyes will free the creative team to pay closer attention to shaping the content and letting go of anything that does not support the one story that leads the rest.
"This tale of a once-and-future civil war still seems to translate into two-dimensional panels as you watch it."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Feels like a work in process."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Poorly written, limply staged and feebly acted."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"The story is second-hand piffle. It invokes big themes, which it's unable to deal with in even a semi-sophisticated way."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
External links to full reviews from popular press...