Othello: The Remix
The Q Brothers hip-hop musical returns to Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
The Q Brothers have been in the business of hip-hop Shakespeare adaptations since The Bombitty of Errors made waves in Chicago in 2001. Their work is clever, fast-paced, and usually side-splittingly funny. Othello: The Remix, however, is their first stab at one of the Bard's dramas. Commissioned in 2012 by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London, and performed in countries including South Korea, Poland and Germany, Othello: The Remix has returned to Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of the yearlong Shakespeare 400 Chicago festival.
The way the Q Brothers tell it, MC Othello (Postell Pringle) is the biggest star on the hip-hop scene. His latest protégé, Cassio (Jackson Doran), is a pop crossover in the making, more concerned with slick dance moves than sick rhymes. Cassio's rise to the top offends Iago (GQ), who believes that he rightfully deserves Cassio's record deal and his spot as Othello's right-hand man. Just as in Shakespeare, Iago lies to and manipulates his compatriots in a revenge scheme that spins out of control. Desdemona, Othello's beautiful and chaste new wife, is reduced to a spectral voice, never appearing onstage.
As Othello, Pringle carries the majority of the dramatic moments in the show. While his confident, powerful Othello succumbs to Iago's manipulation, Pringle plays paranoia and devastation without resorting to chewing the scenery. Doran is much hammier in the dual role of Cassio and Emilia, Iago's well-intentioned wife. In addition to his goofy rapping, which is pure Billboard Hot 100 circa 2006, Doran's lovely singing voice is showcased in a surprisingly sweet musical turn as Emilia. GQ, on the other hand, spits hard-hitting rhymes as Iago. Perhaps it is because GQ cowrote and codirected the show (along with his brother JQ), but Iago's verses are so tight and inventive that the audience is inclined to agree with him that he should be headlining their show.
JQ plays a cavalcade of supporting characters: Loco Vito, the tennis-obsessed manager of Othello's crew, Bianca, Cassio's clingy girlfriend who aspires to rap, and Roderigo, the most painfully stereotypical nerd you can find outside of The Big Bang Theory. JQ brings real comedic chops to the series of broad clichés, and he manages to get a few great rhymes in. DJ Clayton Stamper spins backing tracks from a booth above the action, working in conjunction with sound designer James Savage to create a great soundscape. Jesse Klug's lighting design is bombastic and playful, transforming Scott Davis' minimalist set into an arena stage, a sultry bedroom, and Iago's villainous dream sequences.
This version of Othello is strangely sanitized. Despite the setting within the hip-hop industry, no guns are used during the copious bloodshed. By removing Desdemona as a character seen onstage, her murder, though presented artfully in an excellent musical number, is devoid of any real emotional impact. Strangest of all, other than a very brief early interlude with Desdemona's racist father, Brabantio (GQ), there is no racial conflict whatsoever in Othello: The Remix. Sure, Othello is called "The Moor" once or twice, but there is never any suggestion that Iago or Roderigo (both played by men of Pakistani/German descent) care about Othello's blackness or his foreign background at all.
Othello: The Remix is a very entertaining 90 minutes, full of devilishly clever couplets set to catchy beats. The Q ensemble performs well. But JQ and GQ's adaptation removes the heart of Othello's tragedy. While their choices doubtless make Othello: The Remix more palatable for high school field trips, it leaves us left wondering why Othello was chosen for their first dramatic foray.