One of the most anticipated productions in Chicago Shakespeare Theatre‘s impressive lineup of programming for Shakespeare 400 Chicago, Othello: The Remix reframes Shakespeare’s Othello as a 90-minute tale of jealousy, betrayal and revenge infused with hip-hop. Developed by GQ and JQ–commonly referred to as the Q Brothers–with creative producer Rick Boynton, Othello: The Remix has had an impressive life since its premiere at Shakespeare’s Globe four years ago. This production has played to sold-out houses in London, Edinburgh, Australia, Poland, Germany and South Korea, all to critical acclaim. Directed and composed by the Q Brothers, Othello: The Remix is a well-crafted and technically proficient adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most enduring tragedies, complemented by a catchy soundtrack. Even with the addition of hip-hop, this is still Othello, albeit a streamlined production. Othello (Postell Pringle)–in this production a rapper instead of a general in the army–secretly marries Desdemona, who quickly becomes a pawn in fellow rapper Iago’s (GQ) scheme to usurp Cassio’s (Jackson Doran) promotion within Othello’s crew. The cast is rounded out by JQ who plays Loco Vito, Roderigo, and Bianca.
However, while the four major players in the original text are Othello, Iago, Cassio, and Desdemona, in the Q Brothers’ production, Desdemona is eschewed for another male member of Othello’s rap crew, only to be represented by the disembodied R&B stylings of a beautiful singer. While I understand the decision to distill Othello‘s large cast to four actors, it’s unfortunate that doing so requires the female characters (in the case of Bianca and Emilia) to be played in drag by men for comedic effect, with Desdemona completely relegated to the sidelines. There is something to be said about historical accuracy in this double-casting, and thematically one could argue that Desdemona’s absence serves to represent her voicelessness in the proceedings between Othello, Iago and Cassio. However, when the climax of the play centers around Desdemona’s brutal murder, you can’t help but wonder how much more effective such a shocking moment would be with an actor physically representing Desdemona on stage. Lyrics such as, “It’s a men’s world / but he’d be nothing without a woman or a girl” attempt to inject some female strength into the piece, yet each woman’s representation in drag undermines the message of the song.
Aside from that one major qualm, Othello: The Remix is a hip and fun adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s classics. The technical design is top-notch, from small details like matching hat and shoelace colors (Iago’s are an envious green) to larger aspects such as dynamic, saturated washes of light that pulse along with the beats and backing tracks. Technically, designers Scott Davis, Greg Hofmann, Jesse Klug and Melissa Veal work beautifully together, crafting a production with clear tone and ambience. The design in Othello: The Remix truly complements the work of the actors on the stage, and such synchronicity is many times electrifying to witness when juxtaposed with the fast-spat rap stylings of all four players. While some beats are more repetitive than others, many of the songs are incredibly catchy, thanks in no small part to the impressive collection of raps the Q Brothers have composed.
Which is, of course, the point of this production. GQ and JQ have carefully distilled a five-act Shakespearean tragedy to a fluid, fast moving, accessible production full of impressive rhymes, rhythm and syncopation. Lyrics simultaneously advance the storyline, entertain and reference everything from notable rap artists, to Godzilla’s Rodan, and Magic: the Gathering’s infamous Black Lotus. The result is hilarious, hip and exhilarating; in fact, the production begins with such verve that it’s hard to imagine how things can get any more energized. Even so, the actors never let up, laying down their rhymes with precision, skill and commitment. Pringle’s Othello and GQ’s Iago each have particularly impressive bouts of lyrical prowess, and their sheer rawness imbues countless lyrics with a winning mixture of humor and gravitas. Indeed, the Q Brothers’ work itself carefully straddles this line throughout most of its 80-minute running time, stumbling only in its unfortunate representation of female characters.
In a world where tickets to the Chicago tour of Hamilton could run you $1200 on the secondary market, it’s easy to see how Othello: the Remix is a smart slot for CST’s Shakespeare 400 Chicago initiative. Audiences are hungry for new takes on the classics and historical figures, and rap and hip-hop provides a unique and exciting way to bridge audiences and blend various forms of expression in effective and affecting ways. If the packed and enthusiastic house opening night is any indicator, Othello: the Remix will quickly solidify itself as yet another hot ticket in the growing canon of hip-hop musicals, although with such a storied history it already seems to have achieved such a goal. Particularly exciting, for me, was the willingness of an audience to buy in to the world of a play so quickly and wholly. When asked to put our hands up in the air mere minutes into the piece, audience members from all ages and backgrounds were immediately swept up into the infectious experience of waving their hands and cheering along with the rappers on stage. To many, such an experience at any play, much less one by William Shakespeare, is a sure sign that the creative team is onto something. The Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix ultimately remixes audience engagement just as much as it does the Bard’s word.
Othello: The Remix is presented in the theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare, April 12–May 8 and features performances by Jackson Doran, GQ, JQ, Postell Pringle, and Clayton Stamper. The production team includes Scott Davis, Greg Hofmann, Jesse Klug, and Melissa Veal. Tickets start at $35 and as little as $20 for anyone under age 35 through Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Box Office at 312.595.5600 or online at www.chicagoshakes.com.