Friday, December 9, 2016

Review: Othello Mixtape

By Michael Block

There's a trend out there. It's called theatrical rap. No, not like Andrew Lloyd Weber's interpretation of rap. But integrated, mainstream rap into the musical theater genre. With Hamilton seemingly raising the bar, other artists are not throwing away their shots of capitalizing on the trend. Enter Othello: the Remix. Created by the Q Brothers, this streamlined update of the Shakespeare classic introduces a new sound to a story of betrayal, greed, and revenge.
Straight from Chicago, Othello: the Remix, written and directed by GQ and JQ, brings a new interpretation of the Bard’s drama with sick beats and a healthy blend of comedy and drama. Bringing the action to the modern world of the music industry, Othello, a renowned DJ, is on the rise to stardom. He falls for the lovely-voiced Desdemona, but it’s his best friend Iago, who isn’t getting Othello’s musical endorsement, that tries to cut down Othello’s infamy. Think of the Othello-Desdemona relationship like BeyoncĂ© and Jay Z. Told with only a cast of four men, Othello: the Remix is an energetic emergence of storytelling that appeals to a fresh audience. If they had the resources to bring it to high schools around the country, it would be a brilliant teaching tool. From a product standpoint, the piece kept a high-octane, dizzying pace. The rhymes were fast. The music was pulsating. It was a concise reimaging of Othello that is nicely structured. The company has a strong comedic approach, but allowing the audience the safe space to laugh should be permitted much sooner. Though the quartet take on a plethora of characters, the one main player completely absent is Desdemona, who is relegated to a voice. It’s a choice. A bold choice. It also forces a hyper-stylized moment to occur during Desdemona’s death sequence that’s unlike anything previously established. The style of rap that GQ and JQ introduced had shades of a modern sound blended with a bit of that infamous late 80s and 90s influence. No matter who was in the audience, it reached their ears in a pleasing manner (even if those pop songs the Q Brothers threw in were crowd pleasers). But considering critically what makes a successful musical,  there are too many songs with the same tempo, which means there’s not a single number that stands out as a showstopper. Without a song stuck in your brain when you leave the theater, you have to ask yourself why.
photo by Carol Rosegg
Othello: The Remix isn’t filled with flourishes, but it is fresh and clean and visually pleasing. Designed by Scott Adam Davis, the set was a backdrop of scaffolding and LED skyscrapers, which also housed the DJ booth. Adding color made each song have a different mood. Keith A. Truax’s lighting design was nothing short of impressive. Costume designer Christina Leinicke gave each actor a color accent. Iago was in green. If you kept a keen eye to detail, Truax introduced the character colors when they were present in the scene. It was a subtle addition that was rewarding in the end. When it came to direction, GQ and JQ had a handle on what they wanted and ensured it was executed in such a way. The musical moved. There was variety in the stage pictures. But it could have gone further and been even tighter. And that’s where an outside eye could have come in. Nevertheless, consistency was prevalent.
Chemistry is key for a production like this. When a technical flub occurs, being able to pick each other up is essential for maintaining momentum. These four knew this world inside and out, and defined the importance of a tightknit cast. Once you knew laughing was ok, the breakout of the show was Jackson Doran as Cassio and Emilia. Doran’s comedic timing was spot-on. The way he approached the physical comedy seemed old hat. Doran’s ability to create distinct characters kept the audience laughing. Likewise, JQ was a mastermind of character. His geeky Roderigo was hilarious. Even though Othello: the Remix took a comic approach, Postell Pringle as Othello and GQ as Iago, (and occasionally Brabantio) played into the brooding world. It wasn’t weighty, but with the plot being what it is, drama was implied and important to their character arcs.
It doesn’t quite have that magical artistry, but the Q Brothers are doing a mighty fine job keeping pace with the Hamilton scribe. If you can't get a ticket to Hamilton, Othello: the Remix is the next best option.