Othello the Remix continues at the Westside Theatre/Downstairs, New York.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
If you’re among the zillions who haven’t seen Hamilton and long to do so, Othello the Remix will give you quite a healthy idea of what that blockbuster is like.
Like Hamilton, it takes on a powerful story and translates it brilliantly to hip hop terms. However, instead of a slice of fundamental American history, Othello the Remix deals with Shakespeare’s immortal cautionary tale against the dangers of jealousy. And it does it with a cast of just four astounding rapper/actors plus a disc jockey working away in a booth at the side of the stage.
A galvanising non-stop current of rhythmic beats and incisive rhyming jargon, the show is at times funny and ultimately gripping. It’s the brainchild of two brothers, succinctly identified hip-hop style as GQ and JQ (short for Gregory and Jeffrey Qaiyum). They wrote, composed and directed it and make up two-fifths of the ensemble
You might even think that Hamilton inspired Othello the Remix, which has just opened Off-Broadway. But no, this is no copycat. The lights went up on Hamilton’s first preview at New York’s Public Theater in January, 2015. Remix had its world premiere in May 2012 at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
It was commissioned for The Globe to Globe Festival by Shakespeare’s Globe, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the UK producing firm Richard Jordan Productions. And even before Remix, its creators collaborated on an early venture in hip hop musicals, with a take on Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. It was called The Bomb-itty of Errors and played Off-Broadway some 17 years ago.
Set in the contemporary music industry, the show turns Shakespeare’s Moorish general into a hip hop mogul. His backing of Cassio, a pop singer/rapper wannabe, ignites the envy of an underling, hip hop purist Iago, who sets out to destroy Othello by casting doubts on the fidelity of Desdemona, the songstress star who is his new wife.
Postell Pringle captures both the engaging entertainer and the imposing bigwig that make up the dual sides of Othello. It’s a powerful performance that eventually gains our sympathy as well.
GQ fairly oozes evil as well as craftiness as Iago, while brother JQ is a laugh-getting Roderigo, a doltish pawn in Iago’s scheming. JQ also comically cross-dresses to portray Bianca, Cassio’s girlfriend.
As the empty-headed Cassio, Jackson Doran is both winning and convincing. Doran also gets a chance to throw on a wig and something suggesting a dress to play Emilia, Iago’s wife. Rounding out the company is the busy disc jockey, DJ Supernova.
Conspicuously absent from the cast of characters is Desdemona, whose purity and beauty is suggested by an ethereal disembodied voice.
One of the surprising pleasures of the show is how the music sometimes moves into a groovy pop style. One great moment is when Doran’s lively Emilia and a trio of gal back-up singers in gold lamé gowns (yes, it’s the other guys in the cast) jive through the catchy refrain: “It’s a man’s world, but he’d be nothin’ without a woman or a girl.”
Another surprise is how the proceedings finally achieve true tragic scope, with the four guys joining together at the close to intone: “In a cold dark unforgiving system, we struggle with our destiny.”
Perhaps the ultimate strength of the show is how closely the four performers work together throughout its 80 minutes, backing up solos, joining in for reactions and refrains and keeping the storytelling racing along. It’s like watching a top-notch team score repeatedly on an athletic field.
The pace is set in the beginning, when they break up the lyric among themselves into individual phrases: “We poor fellas/humble storytellers/will weave/the tale/of a man/who gets jealous.”
However, these storytellers have no need to be humble. As they might rap it, their Othello/is a helluva/show.
Readers may also be interested in:
Finian’s Rainbow – Irish Repertory Theatre, New York – Review.