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‘Othello: The Remix’ brings hip hop to Shakespeare’s tragedy of a hero’s long fall

Submitted by on Mar 28, 2013 – 2:15 pm

“Othello: The Remix,” written, directed and with music by the Q Brothers, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through July 27. ★★★★

By Nancy Malitz

It’s coming up on 449 years since Shakespeare was born, and he’s still “at the T.O.P.” — to borrow a phrase from the Q Brothers. While it’s no great surprise that companies such as ChicagoShakes would want to keep his flame alive by appealing to new audiences, it’s genuine music to the ears to experience the latest lyrical adaptation of the tragedy “Othello” by a quintet of rap artists in the black box upstairs. Who’s teaching whom here?

Earlier this month, downstairs in the big space at CST, an internet-era “Julius Caesar” was playing, line for line in Shakespeare’s words. What’s upstairs now — “Othello: The Remix” — loses most of Shakespeare’s actual language to modern adaptation. RAPtation as some have put it. But I heard it as RAPTation with that capital T. Those rhymes and rhythms had me mesmerized.

The Q Brothers belong to a community of serious poets who consider Shakespeare to be a spiritual brother. What the Q’s are doing with their blistering pace, irresistible beats, wildly inventive language, and shrewd wit born from that best of all vantage points, the well-traveled outsider, is gripping theater. Funny? For certain. Tragic and deeply touching? Definitely that, too. 

Rap’s British compatriot Akala likes to surprise audiences by making them guess whether a phrase is Shakespeare or hip-hop. He gets them every time with “maybe it’s hatred I spew, maybe its food for the spirit.” It could be Shakespeare’s Iago, of course. (But it’s Eminem.)

GQ and JQ, as the Q Brothers call themselves, were born in Chicago and equally schooled in this theater of Shakespeare and the street.

Their first Shakespeare adaptation, “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” was born as a GQ senior project in 1999 at New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing. Of its garage-space debut, the New York Times noted: “Shakespeare can take it; theatergoers who don’t also appreciate a mosh pit may have a harder time. This is not to dismiss, just advise…”

That show led to the MTV series “Scratch and Burn,” whose skits include “Hamlet in One Minute” and a sweet sequence called “Computer Geeks,” in which nerdy but lusty heroes are visited by Bill Gates in a dream and assured they’re really hot.

Fast forward to “Othello: The Remix,” and the endearing geek is Roderigo (JQ), a lovesick sap in braces who adores Othello’s woman. The villain Iago (GQ) says it’ll cost to get her, so Rodrigo trades in his most dearly prized Masters of the Universe action figures, clueless as a puppet on a string.

The Q Brothers are now in their late 30s, and Shakespeare’s long been a touchstone. They collaborated with Chicago Shakespeare Theater creative producer Rick Boynton to bring Shakespeare’s verbally sparring Beatrice and Benedick to life in “Funk It Up About Nothin,” which had its world premiere at CST in 2011. In London, the Guardian wrote that it had “more zest than a casement of lemons.” With Boynton they also dreamed up “Othello: The Remix” at the invitation of Shakespeare’s Globe for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, and continued on to Germany and the Edinburgh Fringe before summer was done.

Thus the American premiere comes almost a year after the show first made headlines, but this “Othello” was worth the wait. It stars four male rappers doing eight roles —  men and women — plus assorted bit parts, with DJ Clayton Stamper occasionally chiming in while minding the show’s beat from the rafters. For all five the pace is quick, with wig and costume changes on the fly.

The updated plot: Black rap artist MC Othello (Postell Pringle) is a rags-to-riches headliner breathing pure platinum ether. He’s got a label, a world tour and — he can hardly believe — he’s betrothed to the all but unobtainable, heavenly-voiced Des. His whole crew is exhilarated: “We made it to the top (to the top) to the top (to the what?) to the T.O.P. and we’re never comin’ down.”

The rest of the story’s about Othello’s comin’ down, of course.

Othello’s sharp descent is master-minded by the malevolent Iago, in this remix a rap purist (GQ) who’s furious when he loses second billing to a pretty boy lightweight — Cassio, at right, played by the irrepressible Jackson Doran. (Doran’s take on this pop hearthrob, whom Iago naturally despises, is a nimble mix of innocent bliss and vanity aborning.) Iago decides to exact his revenge by driving Othello mad with suspicion that Des has been unfaithful, feigning loyalty all the while.

GQ explains himself (“call me camouflage, call me a chameleon”) in a clever parallel to one of the most famous passages in Shakespeare, when Iago unveils his plan to bring down the hated Moor, felling Cassio in the bargain.  (Here’s Kenneth Branagh doing the original.) But the method’s convoluted and tortuous, no matter how you tell it. A funny “Remix” moment comes when Iago — bragging how he’ll set things up so Othello falls in an elaborate sequence of dominoes — realizes he’s “lost” his audience. So he stops, goes back, and enacts the scheme more slowly to general laughter. “Get it?” This villain’s got your back.

Our modern Iago will dupe Othello not by means of a handkerchief that’s gone astray but a rapper’s chain. The “Remix” Des is present only as a heavenly sounding disembodied voice, a psychologically apt updating of the fair-skinned, aristocratic beauty that the victorious warrior Othello  truly marveled was his own. (Shakespeare has the Moor deferentially reassuring his senators he didn’t use witchcraft to get her — here’s James Earl Jones in a pitch-perfect display of the predicament.) What keeping Des ephemeral does for her unimaginably violent murder at his hands is to channel the ancient Greeks. As a modern stage coup it’s pretty nifty, too.

In all seriousness, then, this show communicates Shakespeare’s central tragedy, although the “Remix” guys put far more busker than beef in the recipe. Shakespeare might have shrugged at the skew, but he would have liked Loco Vito, the music industry CEO, who’s got one of those baffling rich-guy obsessions, in this case a manic thing for tennis.  In the ultimate compliment, Loco likens the “so perfect” singing of Des to “Sharapova on a clay surface.”  Only Roderigo’s death — “no bonus round” —  tops that for drollery.

GQ’s music is always smart, and downright haunting in the love duet between Othello and his unseen girl. Scott Davis’ ingenious set is conjured of parts and suggestions, almost entirely on wheels, and in all aspects the production seems sleek and well-honed.

The world premiere of “Othello: The Remix” occurred in the context of the Globe’s Olympics-inspired initiative to offer each of the 37 Shakespeare plays in a production from a different country.  So there was American hip-hop alongside “Taming of the Shrew” in Urdu, “Richard II” in Arabic and “The Tempest” in Bangla.

The Q Brothers’ entry was instantly popular with crowds. Consider “Othello: The Remix” as one more example of rappers’ abiding affection for the Bard. Lest anyone think that the reclamation of Shakespeare has stopped in America with Bernstein’s “West Side Story” or DC Comics’ Sandman: Dream Country, hip hop artists insist explicitly on this kinship. He was, like them, streetwise and a forger of contemporizing poetic tools and the rest is just semantics:  “A rose by any other name, smell just as sweet.”

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Captions and credits: Home page and top:  Jackson Doran, GQ, Postell Pringle and JQ play multiple parts in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2013 “Othello: The Remix,” written, directed and with original music by the Q Brothers. Chicago-born JQ and GQ.  Geeky Roderigo (JQ) is a willing pawn for scheming Iago (GQ). Othello (Postell Pringle) is at the top,  as  JQ and GQ cheer him on. Cassio (Jackson Doran) is a heart throb with fans. Othello (Postell Pringle) angrily demands proof that Des has been unfaithful, but he’s already in the trap set by Iago (GQ).  (Production photos by Michael Brosilow.) “Othello,” the first quarto edition, published 1622. (Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library) Below: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in the black sweater, with the cast of “Othello: The Remix” (left to right) Postell Pringle, JQ, GQ, Jackson Doran and Clay Stamper after a performance March 24, 2013. (Courtesy Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

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