Othello: The Remix at Chicago Shakes

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I’ve been a fan of Shakespeare since taking a class about him at Harper College my sophomore year. Othello, with Lawrence Fishburne, was on the shelves at Blockbuster Video and O, with Josh Hartnett, was set to come out in theaters. Diana and I were still just friends so she found it creepy when I stuffed a handwritten copy of Sonnet 18 into her locker but the bard was involved when our courtship started a few years later.

It’s a new style. It’s whatever we wanna be. So welcome, welcome, welcome to the Bombitty!

Bombitty of Errors was a hip hop rendition of William Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors where 4 male actors played all the characters. Diana and I went to the Chicago Shakes Theater at Navy Pier to see it during our first Summer back from school. It wasn’t a date but it might have been if she hadn’t had a boyfriend at the time. We were both blown away by the writing, music and performances so the memory’s stuck with us in the 12 years since.

JQ as Rodrigo, GQ as Iago
JQ as Rodrigo, GQ as Iago

The Q Brothers, the writing and rapping duo that co-wrote Bombitty, continued making add-rap-tations like Funk It Up About Nothing. Their most recent commission from Chicago Shakespeare Theater premiered at The Globe in London and was the only North American production to sell out and receive critical acclaim at the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad’s ‘Globe to Globe’ Festival. Othello: The Remix makes its American premiere at CST from now through April 28.

Replacing the crusades with the rap game, the Q Brothers use the original storyline and characters in a modern context by making Cassio a Vanilla-Ice-style-bubblebum-rapper, Othello a bootstrap-liftin’ kingpin that’s been softened by his backup singer and Iago a cunning, abstract lyricist with a chip on his shoulder. Though each of these characters has a distinct charm that made them believable in the 21st century, the male character that I’d dismissed in the original play was my favorite.

(left to right) Cassio/Jackson Doran, Iago/GQ, Othello/Postell Pringle, Loco Vito/JQ
(left to right) Cassio/Jackson Doran, Iago/GQ, Othello/Postell Pringle, Loco Vito/JQ

Remixed Rodrigo (above) is a lighting designer, played by JQ, as a slurpy-mouthed gamer geek with Chilindrina-styled glasses and a gait that implies a permanent wedgie. His crush on Desdemona never seemed as real to me as when Iago convinced him to sell his original, in-box He-Man action figures to shower her with gifts. It made his desperation real for me in a way I couldn’t grasp before. His references to gaming and nerd culture give him depth while modernizing the ideas for a new audience, in the same way that Cassio’s references to Can’t Buy Me Love betray a soft and flirty side that would originally have been of a soldier’s make up.

The female characters are mostly a source of comic relief and pawns in Iago’s plot to take down Othello. Bianca, the Nuyorican groupie that thinks she’s exclusive with Cassio, hilariously slips into rants that mimic the rhythm of a scorned lover in Humboldt Park. Emilia’s role as the undersexed wife of Iago is an amusing way to remind us of Iago’s obsession with Othello’s downfall but her best part comes when she leads an R&B song about it being “A Man’s World.” Their abstract portrayal of Desdemona was bold, original and it brought a touch of intrigue to how they’d handle the climax of the story.

It’s common knowledge that the tragedy in Othello centers around the death of Desdemona. I’ve read it in the script, seen it 3 ways on-screen and once on stage. The difference with Othello: The Remix is the energetic pace and audience engagement that it sets up in the first few acts. Iago’s monologues brought on applause more than once and the rafters occasionally bounced with audience members keeping the beat for themselves. This atmosphere made the moment that Othello puts Desdemona’s light out all the more profound. One lonely soul wanted to applaud but surrendered to will of the room and let the stillness hang, bringing attention to our unity through a moment of silence.

Do yourself a favor and catch this production while you have the chance! If you find Shakespeare intimidating, Hip Hop will make the language more accessible. If you don’t get why your kids love Hip Hop so much, Shakespeare’s characters will give you a new appreciation for the complexity of their culture. Seriously, how often can Elizabethan literature be fun for the whole family? Get Tickets Here

Here’s part of a radio interview with The Q Brothers.

One thought on “Othello: The Remix at Chicago Shakes

    […] Mentions this year are Mario’s review of Othello: The Remix at Chicago Shakes, the installation video for Diana’s Under the Table, with original music by Matthew King and […]

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