Where: Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
When: through June 15
By Anne Spiselman
Even if you find the idea of hip-hop Shakespeare bizarre, you have to hand it to the Chicago-bred Q Brothers — known as GQ and JQ — for the audacity and ingenuity of “Othello: The Remix.” They’ve created an immensely clever, funny, and even moving 90-minute take on the tragedy, transplanting it from the Elizabethan era to the 21st century world of competing rappers, roadies, and record labels. Furthermore, they’ve done it with only four actors and a DJ in jumpsuits, and Desdemona is just an ethereal voice from somewhere in the house.
Commissioned by Chicago Shakespeare Theater and developed with Rick Boynton as the North American entry in the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad’s “Globe to Globe” festival, which featured 37 companies from around the world performing the Bard’s entire canon, “OTR” subsequently toured to Germany and Edinburgh. Now it’s come home to roost in CST’s intimate Upstairs space, though Jesse Klug’s lighting and James Savage’s sound design are worthy of a mid-size concert venue.
Scott Davis’s scenic design depends simply on graffiti and scaffolding atop which DJ Clayton Stamper pumps out the beats and participates in the numbers. Davis also devised the costumes that, along with Melissa Veal’s wigs, range from witty to hilarious. Jackson Doran’s Cassio becomes Iago’s wife Emilia with a reddish wig and untied apron, for example, and geeky glasses and hat, a bandana, and a bright-pink wig are enough for JQ to morph from Roderigo to record mogul, Loco Vico, to Cassio’s Latina girlfriend, Bianca.
Though the remix changes the outlines of the story — and the program notes include synopses of both versions — the themes remain jealousy, envy and self-doubt. When MC Othello (Postell Pringle), who has risen from the ghetto to fame with the help of his new wife Desdemona‘s stunning vocals, decides to elevate pop-music rapper Cassio (Doran) in the group and release his album next, hardcore hip-hop purist lyricist Iago (GQ), enraged at being overlooked, vows revenge. He enlists the aid of Rodrigo (JQ), the nerdy lighting guy on the tour who is in love with Desdemona, and sets in motion a plot to make Othello jealous of Desdemona by fabricating an affair between her and Cassio, with a medallion on a gold chain in place of the handkerchief as the ocular proof.
Figuring out the scene-by-scene correlations with Shakespeare is part of the fun, at least for aficionados, and the Q Brothers’ rapid-fire rhyming couplets replete with contemporary references and music-industry satire are brilliant — even if they fly by so fast it’s impossible to catch every word. A couple of the songs are wonderful, especially the girl group’s rendition of “It’s a Man’s World.”
The acting is topnotch, too. Pringle, with his captivating smile, brings a charm to the street-sharp MC Othello, and although his jealousy doesn’t build as gradually as it could, the rage that makes him smother Desdemona — represented by a pillow on a trunk — is palpable, as is his pain and guilt when he realizes his mistake. GQ’s Iago is as envious and conniving as any, while Doran and JQ are every bit as good — and much funnier — as women than as men.
A couple of minor caveats, however: Although Desdemona’s murder was dramatically staged, I think it would have been more powerful with her present. And one aspect of Shakespeare’s play that the remix doesn’t quite capture is Othello’s status as a complete outsider. It’s probably easier for a ghetto boy to become a famous rapper today than it was for a Moor, even a revered general, to be accepted into Venetian society 400-plus years ago. That being said, the Q Brothers and their crew deserve props for a lively evening that savvily translates “Othello” for a hip audience.