I went to see the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Othello: The Remix on May 5. The Q Brothers are known for their hip-hop interpretations of Shakespeare’s work—their best-known piece is probably The Bomb-itty of Errors. They managed to create an effective and entertaining adaptation of Othello, hitting most of the major plot points in seventy-five minutes. As a fan of both hip-hop and Shakespeare, I left impressed.
Hip hop has a lot of parallels to Shakespeare: rhythm, word play. If Shakespeare were alive and creating work in our day and age, he may very well have been a hip hop artist. It therefore feels entirely appropriate that the entire play is rapped by four actors, who play various parts. The Q Brothers clearly have a deep understand and love of Shakespeare’s work; many of the characters’ rhymes pulled out lines from the original text, as well as other plays in the canon. (These references are also very true to the spirit of hip-hop, where rappers name-check everything from sports teams to designer labels to politicians.) The lyrics vividly paint the picture Shakespeare created, and cover almost every major plot point—in half the time!
The plot, in a nutshell: Othello is the biggest star in the music game, and Desdemona is the hook singer from the suburbs who falls in love with him. Iago, an underground rapper, has been waiting for his man to give him his shot in the spotlight. Instead, Othello selects Cassio, who is much more of a “mainstream” choice. Iago, therefore, plots his revenge. We see all of the familiar characters: Roderigo is an IT nerd; Emilia, the unsatisfied but loyal wife of Iago; Bianca, the groupie in love with Cassio; and Lodovico, the head of the studio.
The performances were high-energy and compelling. GQ’s portrayal of Iago, complete with Eminem-like rapping skills, was particularly memorable. The actors constantly interacted with the crowd, and while it sometimes had the feel of a rock concert, they never lost control of the room. Colored spotlights sweeping across the room led to the club feel, as did the equipment trunk that was wheeled around the room to help create different settings.
The glaring hole in the play is the absence of women; the cast is comprised of four men, and the female characters we do see are played in broad, comic strokes. This can lead to some funny moments, but the power of Emilia’s character, particularly her powerful monologue to Desdemona towards the end of the play, is lost. Her death is an oddly humorous footnote to the conclusion of the play. We don’t even see Desdemona—she exists only as a voice singing a couple of hooks from the booth, forcing the actor playing Othello to face the front of the stage and gaze dreamily at the back of the house. Her absence is particularly problematic when it comes to her death at the end of the play. The trunk stands in for her, and it is an interesting workaround—but how much more interesting would it be to see two people battling back and forth in song and rhyme—a lyrical battle to the death? It’s a missed opportunity, and I think the production would be much richer in adding a woman or two to the cast.
As currently constructed, however, the play truly is Othello’s story. It becomes a cautionary tale told through the rhymes of the man who was on top of the world and lost it all; only his death contains any emotional resonance for us. Postell Pringle plays the title character with a deft hand; he’s full of bombast and swagger when necessary, but he can also find the vulnerability necessary at key moments. The play would be a wonderful companion piece to any full production of Shakespeare’s play (indeed, I thought it was a lost opportunity for CST not to have run this in concurrence with their modern-day setting of Othello, which closed in April), but it manages to stand on its own as a fully realized, thoroughly entertaining story.
Kyle Haden is an assistant professor of theatre at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, as well as a professional actor and director, and the artistic director of the Ashland New Plays Festival in Ashland, Oregon. He holds his MFA from Columbia University in New York and his BA from Wake Forest University.