The Public Theater’s Venice offers a fresh perspective on a universal truth

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Matt Sax in Venice

The Public Theater’s production of Venice is about a whole lot of things that we, as a society, would probably rather not face. The tale is dotted with betrayal, jealousy, terrorism, and violence, but at its core stands one simple and irrefutable truth – the distance we will go in pursuit of feeling loved, and the vulnerability that comes with it.

With the refrain “I wanna love and be loved” echoing throughout the score, Venice’s players are taken on a jagged roller coaster ride of romance and war – and writers Eric Rosen and Matt Sax present these age-old themes in a fresh style that’s never been seen before. Every character’s longing for love and security is what ultimately fuels them to veer off what might have been a simple path to peace into high-stakes conflicts that threaten their very being.

This dystopian hip-hop/rock musical is one of a kind and will surely pave the way for future mold-breaking productions. Its initial concept began as a production based on Othello, but as it was developed it began to take on a life of its own in a new direction. The production was originally launched in a Kansas theater in 2010. It jolts audiences with vibrant choreography, a minimalistic set and strong, emotive vocals that resonate through the house.

In a straightforward sense, Venice is the very essence of what musical theatre is made of and made for. The show’s powerhouse performers come together each night, full of energy and dedication, to deliver audiences a whole new way of viewing the very world around them. It’s undeniable that the cast is at home onstage and that there is nowhere else they’d rather be than sharing Venice’s all-too-relevant story with an engaged audience.

As the show begins, the audience is greeted by narrator Clown MC, played by Sax. Clown MC navigates through the story in a style that is slightly reminiscent of Lin-Manuel Miranda but undoubtedly stamped with Sax’s own unique flavor. We find ourselves in the shattered city of Venice, twenty years after a terrorist attack that wiped out thousands. The wealthy escaped to a Safe Zone outside the city limits, while the rest were left to find ways to survive in the violent, dangerous remains of what was once a thriving metropolis. The president and other city leaders have been killed, and in the wake of the attack, tycoon Theodore Westbrook (Jonathan-David) has taken power.

We soon meet Venice Monroe (Haaz Sleiman), who was left behind after the attack and grew up in the city’s ruins. The young idealist dreams of leading the city to a peaceful, reunited future. Enter Willow Turner (Jennifer Damiano), the daughter of the deceased former president, who was also lost in the attack.  Before she moved to the Safe Zone, she and Venice were childhood friends, and have written each other each day since their separation twenty years before. Her plan to marry him aims to help Venice earn the people’s trust and restore democracy in the now-divided civilization. The minor catch here is that she’s engaged to Theo Westbrook, leader of the very government Venice wants to overthrow. Enter drama. Enter conflict. Enter Venice’s half-brother Markos Monroe (Leslie Odom Jr.).

The leader of Westbrook’s military force with a secret hunger for power, Markos is a confidant to both Theo and Venice – or is he? Who can really trust him? With a malicious smile and devilish charm, Markos creates a domino effect with his lies as the audience watches helplessly. Markos manages to turn his friends against the people they once trusted by preying on the insecurity and need for love that lurks within us all. Inspired by the ghosts of the parents they lost to terrorists, the young citizens of Venice each fight for their own vision of what justice means to them. A dynamic, animated ensemble illuminates their trials and adds a vibrant pulse to the story. As the characters dart between horrific acts of violence and flickering determination to remain optimistic for a new beginning, it’s hard not to see facets of our own society mirrored back at us.

It is often said that to deliver great work, an actor should be completely focused on the present moment of their character and the scene that surrounds them. But what about when that carries over to the audience? What about when an actor is so immersed in the world they’ve created onstage that the audience can’t help but be just as focused as they are? Venice has the power to allow viewers to forget the busy world they left outside the theatre as soon as they walk in the door. Once the lights go down and the show begins, all that exists is the chaotic world that Venice and his friends are muddling through. In New York, it sometimes seems that new productions are churned out by the week, only to fade out shortly after. Even the most successful shows often provide just a few hours of distraction at best, soon to be melted away from our memories by real-world stresses that same evening.

Venice and the fate of the characters I’d quickly grown attached to haunted me long after the house lights went up and the performance ended. I couldn’t get the score out of my head for days. All I could think about was how and when I’d be able to experience it again. This show is not just about love triangles or nifty lighting effects. It is about the parallels between Venice and Willow’s world and the injustices we see each day in our world. It is about learning to choose love over fear to prevent a horrible fate. It is both a cautionary tale and a reflection of present-day woes. It’s also just plain fun and entertaining.

Matt Sax and Eric Rosen represent a bright future in innovative theatre and forward thinking. I can’t imagine what they’ll create next or where Venice will head from here, but I can say with an almost giddy enthusiasm that I am beyond excited to find out.

Venice has been extended at the Public Theater through June 30. To purchase tickets, visit their website.

About Claire H.

Writer, performer, picture-taker, New Yorker. Find me on Twitter at @Claire_Hannum.

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