Written, Composed, and Directed By GQ and JQ (The Q Brothers)
Off Broadway, Musical
Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street
by Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti on 11.28.16
JQ, Postell Pringle, GQ, and Jackson Doran in Othello: The Remix. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: The Q Brothers bring witty hip hop flow to Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, serving bawdy jokes and an updated storyline that entertains but doesn’t really say anything new.
Oh snap, MC O in the house!
Commissioned for the Globe to Globe Festival, Othello: The Remix had its world premiere at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, rewriting the classic Shakespearian tragedy of Othello into a modern music industry setting using rap and hip hop rhythms. Transformed here from a commanding general to rap mogul, Othello (Postell Pringle) and his crew follow the same classic unfolding story of betrayal, distrust, and doubt told through The Q Brothers’ witty lyrics over rap beats. Flying by at a speedy eighty minutes, Othello: The Remix does indeed cleverly play with language in a way that would make Shakespeare smile. However, underneath the broad comedy and visual gags, the show lacks a certain depth. Taken as a light-hearted romp, it is entertaining and engaging. However, don’t expect it to leave you with a fresh perspective.
The language of Shakespeare rushes into hip hop flow in Othello: The Remix, which plays and extends the rhythmic meter of iambic pentameter. Characters' rap styles differ in reflection of their personalities. For instance, braggadocious Cassio (Jackson Doran, genuinely delightful) raps with candy-coated ease, bouncing from line to line with a rakish smile. Sniping Iago (GQ, with frightening, if broad, intensity) spits venomous lines, telegraphing a sociopathic murderous rage through fast-paced rhymes. There are also moments of clever subtlety in the music of the show; the driving beat of the show comes to a silent stop in the first creeping moments of Othello’s doubt. The show’s DJ Supernova works hard to spin pulsing, dynamic beats, and some of the songs are excellent, particularly the Othello-Desdemona collab “This Love” and the fun “Cassio Slide.” Lyrics tend towards the silly, and are so cleaned up that most families would probably feel comfortable bringing teens along without fear of explicit language. The cast’s singing voices—utilized for a few songs—are passably fine, though they’re stronger and more powerful while rapping.
Smart design elements create atmospheric shifts without scenery in this sprint of a show, including excellent lighting design by Keith A. Traux and clever costume design by Christina Leinicke. The hardworking cast of four juggle multiple characters with wigs and bib-like costumes that are donned and discarded like magic in order to conjure the frustrated love interests and laughably outrageous caricatures that create the world of the play. Jackson Doran is double cast as the cocky Cassio and Emilia, Iago’s pleading wife. He portrays the latter with laudable range, making the most of the humor in her sex-starved invitations to her husband, yet also imbuing her with a deeper variety of emotions. JQ, whose winking, in-on-the-joke energy is engaging, does triple duty as Roderigo, here a computer nerd with a notable lisp, Loco Vito, the tennis-obsessed First Folio Records manager, and Bianca, Cassio’s spurned Latina girlfriend. The latter character is painted in big, broad strokes, saved by certain moments of humanity but dangerously close to a worn-out stereotype. Across the board in Othello: The Remix, all the characters save Othello, Iago, and Cassio are essentially one-dimensional punch-lines; they draw laughs, but lose the human complexity at the heart of Shakespeare’s story about trust.
Most notably, Desdemona has been reduced to a mellifluous voice, though we learn through the rappers’ entranced explanations that she is a beautiful suburbanite with a voice of silk. She soon falls for Othello while collaborating on music together, becoming his muse and other half. It is convenient for the show to free itself of needing a physical Desdemona, particularly as the four-man crew is already spread mightily thin. However, against the backdrop of a source material already based in a story driven by machismo and ownership, it is disturbing to have Desdemona simply be a sexualized noise with no words of her own. In one of the strongest parts of the show, Emilia sings a Dreamgirls-like sequence “Man’s World” about the gender inequality of the way of things. It is a missed opportunity that the Q Brothers don’t spend a bit more of their obvious smarts trying to create a more nuanced exploration of how these themes are also present in the contemporary rap music industry. Further, the show almost avoids talking about race entirely, a strange erasure of some of the most complicated themes in the original.
Othello: The Remix does a great job of presenting a winking take on a classic piece of theater. With a talented cast and great design, the show is fun and will entertain audiences who are curious about seeing what can be inspired by classic texts. Just don’t hold out for a revelation that will take your breath away.
(Othello: The Remix plays at the Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, in an open-ended run. The running time is one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 8; Thursdays and Fridays at 7; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $85 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For more information visit othellotheremix.com.)
Othello: The Remix is written, composed, and directed by GQ and JQ. Scenic Design is by Scott Adam Davis. Developed with Rick Boyton. Costume Design is by Christina Leinicke. Lighting Design is by Keith A. Truax. Sound Design is by Dave Ferdinand/One Dream. Production Manager is Keith A. Truax. General Management is by Theatre Management Associates, Maria Di Dia, and Aldo Scrofani. Company Manager is Zak Jacobs.
The cast includes GQ, JQ, Jackson Doran, Postell Pringle, and DJ Supernova.