“Venice,” a sweaty amalgam of Shakespearean plotting, political allegory and hip-hop jam, is truly exciting at its frequent best. This futuristic, post-apocalyptic take on “Othello” doesn’t always weave together its ambitious strains satisfyingly. Yet in its doomsday beat alternating with bursts of romantic song, co-creators Eric Rosen and Matt Sax point the way to a new synthesis of rhythm and rock opera no fan of either art form should pass up.
Rap fusions have impressively taken stage before: in the Tony-winning “In the Heights” or the works of Will Power, not to mention Rosen and Sax’s own tour de force “Clay” in the same Kirk Douglas venue.
But memory doesn’t yield another tuner quite as lyrical in the service of tricky, propulsive rhyming and repetition, or one so willing to place gorgeous melodies like “Sunrise” or “The Wind Cried Willow” against the martial funk of “People Forgotten.”
With Curtis Moore’s orchestrations allotting suave variety to the keyboard/percussion band, and John Carrafa and Tanisha Scott’s inventive, popping and locking choreography led by tireless MC Sax, “Venice” constructs a robust musical world ready to support an equally substantial narrative.
Story-wise, the public concerns of “Othello” serve the tuner best. “Venice” is both the fictional city-state now emerging from 20 years of cataclysmic war and the first name of the general (Javier Munoz) whose calls for “Change,” and kinship to a martyred pacifist mother (Uzo Aduba), have catapulted him into power.
It’s witty to costume the intense Munoz in Obamaesque black suit and narrow tie, and wise to assign the machinations of Iago figure Markos (Rodrick Covington) as a genuinely political motivation: “Thinking we can get along/That shit is a blind deal” sings the charismatic fanatic, rejecting appeasement of terror in the electric “Bomb Drops.” With Jason H. Thompson’s projections interjecting media scrutiny on the affairs of state, the plot’s left/right divide offers instant, provocative links to our own day.
Ironically, the constraints on “Venice” derive from Shakespeare, whose jealousy plot involving the general’s Desdemona (willowy Andrea Goss as Willow) and innocent bystander Cassio (the beautifully voiced but underused Erich Bergen) never seems integral to the bigger picture here. Romantic scenes keep interrupting the central power struggles rather than furthering them, and plot analogues — a necklace in place of the dreaded handkerchief — feel forced.
On the other hand, making “Roderigo” (the impressive J.D. Goldblatt) a ballsier suitor bolsters the backstairs intrigue, while Angela Wildflower Polk’s sizzling incarnation of Lady Gaga mixed with the Acid Queen reminds us of celebrity’s influence on the body politic.
Most of all, moving Emilia to the center of the action — and casting Victoria Platt to invest her with genuine purpose and grit — could be the playmakers’ two smartest moves.
Eventually “Venice” almost eschews “Othello” altogether in favor of “Macbeth,” with a body count that would threaten to collapse Meghan Raham’s Greek tragedy steps if the slamming choreography hadn’t already assured their structural integrity.
Freed of the need to follow Shakespeare slavishly, Rosen and Sax score their sharpest debating points on a society’s proper response to insurrection within and threats from without. They achieve their emotional peak as well, as Platt’s magnificent 11 o’clock number reminds us it’s “Time to Grow Up” as a people: “We’re not children anymore/The dead are all around us and they cry.”
The plea for rationality is salutary and necessary, if only incidentally related to the events preceding it.