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Theatre in Review: Othello: The Remix (Westside Theatre)

JQ, Postell Pringle, GQ, Jackson Doran. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The high-concept premise behind Othello: The Remix is the sort of thing to warm a movie executive's heart: It's William Shakespeare's tragedy, but updated, with the iambic pentameter tossed in favor of the jagged, jittery rhythms of hip-hop. Well, why not? Shakespeare has been adapted, massaged, rewritten, and second-guessed for centuries. Sometimes, the results are captivating. And, not to be unkind, but long after the creators of Othello: The Remix have shuffled off to the Old Rhymers' Home, the original play will still be with us, fresh as the day it was written.

GQ and JQ, the authors and stars of this sometimes inventive, often frantic, surprisingly dogged entertainment, have reshaped the tragedy of the Moor of Venice as a music industry melodrama. In their version, Othello is a hip-hop star and tastemaker along the lines of Jay-Z or Kanye West. He presides over a stable of rising stars who crave his mentor attentions: These include Iago, an old-school rapper, who is feeling left in the lurch now that Othello is enamored of Cassio, whose performing style is informed by a heavy dose of boy-band attitude. At the same time, Othello has found his own personal Beyoncé in Desdemona, whose lovely vocals are pushing his recordings in a pop-music direction.

What's a jealous, neglected old friend to do? As in Shakespeare, Iago sets in motion a plot to discredit Cassio, casting aspersions on Desdemona's virtue in the process. Whether in Renaissance Venice or today's music business, a mogul can only take so much: Convinced that Cassio is ravishing Desdemona behind his back, Othello blows a gasket and seeks revenge, leading to the same corpse-strewn finale.

Apart from a certain little musical currently playing on Broadway that you may have heard of, I don't consider myself a hip-hop fan; however, I have to admit that the words in Othello: The Remix, on their own gaudy, showboating, bling-encrusted terms, have plenty of verve. Here's Othello introducing himself: "I gotta lotta drama, hotter than Madonna/In a sauna when she let you do a body shot of vodka on her./Plus I'm sicker than guzzlin' a fifth of gin/Pukin', wakin' up and doing it again. Ya listenin'?/I'm tryin' to be the American dream./So put me in, coach, I can carry the team./Better know ya'll, Bourbon in a low ball/Standin' so tall, smother tracks like a snowfall!"

Or here's Cassio, preening himself on his success as he waits for his record to be dropped: "The moment is right, talk about timin'/Can go all night, and I ain't talkin' bout rhymin'./But I'm an entertainer and hip-hop's my outlet./They all talkin' bout me and my album ain't out yet./Look at my outfit, always matchin', Slick Rick quick wit."

But if the authors' intricately rhymed verse is slickly effective in conveying the whirlwind pace of intrigue, the complex plot and counterplot that end with the shedding of innocent blood and the destruction of the title character, the authors can't do much to invest action with much meaning. A drama that can shake one to the core in its original version comes off as little more than a juicy episode of Empire. Even when the worst is happening, the authors can't stop themselves from going for easy laughs; for example, Ludovic, one of Shakespeare's noble Venetians, is converted into Loco Vito, the head of the record label, who is a tennis freak and sees everything in terms of his favorite players, a joke that comes out of left field and often intrudes on some of the most dramatic moments.

Even odder, the production features an all-male cast. This means that Emilia, Iago's saucy wife, and Bianca, Cassio's sometime lover, are both played by men, the characters reduced to drag jokes even during the tragic climax. We never see Desdemona at all; she exists only as an occasional voice on the sound system. This is a positively bizarre decision; without seeing Othello together with the woman he loves, we can't appreciate what he loses when his faith in her is shattered. It also means that, during the climax, when he finally picks up that fatal pillow, he presses it down on...nothing.

What finally cancels out the possibility of true emotional engagement is the sheer relentlessness of the verse. Every speech in Othello: The Remix is set to the same unremitting meter, underscored further by music played by DJ Supernova, who, with his turntable, occupies a booth upstage left; as overamplified by the sound designer, Dave Ferdinand, the result is overinsistent, even assaultive. The action becomes not about the people but about the rhymes: The only feeling possible is a stunned admiration for the sheer torrent of words.

Under the authors' direction, the four-person cast attacks the stage as if plugged into their own dedicated energy current. Postell Pringle is solid as Othello, presiding over the action with a natural authority and falling apart as compellingly as the script will allow. GQ is, in his way, a formidable Iago, even if the character's famous "motiveless malignity" has been replaced by old-fashioned showbiz jealousy. Jackson Doran makes Cassio into something of a good-natured doofus, and he milks the role of Emilia for audience-baiting drag gags. JQ plays Roderigo with an annoying lisp, gets some laughs as Loco Vito, and camps it up shamelessly as Bianca.

The production, which was originally seen at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, has an appropriately shiny set by Scott Adam Davis, a city skyline set against an arrangement of trusses lined with LED tubes. Keith A. Truax's lighting effectively brings a number of concert touring techniques, including plenty of saturated color and blinder cues, into a theatrical context. The best thing about Christina Leinicke's costumes is how they facilitate quick changes.

As theatrical stunts go, this is relatively harmless -- although I hope there are no Hamlet or King Lear remixes in the offing. If it gets any young people interested in Shakespeare, so much the better. They have a real treat in store, which this show only suggests. --David Barbour

(30 November 2016)

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