Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Now of course, not all pretzels are created equal, so merely being twisted does not make a show worthwhile. The Q Brothers, the pair of creative dudes behind this work, have not only twisted this Othello, they have also given it great flavor, bounce and vigor. For the duration of its ninety minutes (yes, Othello in ninety minutes), I was spellbound at the audacity and talent with which this enterprise is pulled off. It is still the Othello whose soul is infected by the green-eyed virus, jealousy, to the point of destroying what he most loves, that you likely have seen at some point, often with brilliant performances to cheer for. But to be totally honest, while I recognize the greatness of the play and have admired several actors in the title role, it always drives me crazy in its depiction of the human heart as so horribly fallible.
Not the case with Othello: The Remix. By changing the setting from an ancient castle to the arena of contemporary recording artists positioning themselves for the top spot at their label, First Folio Records, the Q Brothers, and collaborator Rick Boynton put the characters on level ground with the likes of us groundlings, who can perceive this retelling as all too credible. But wait, that still sounds grim, and Othello: The Remix is decidedly not grim. The Qs (if I may call them that) unleash the humor submerged in the piece (who knew?), hung out for all to see, both in their wordsmithing and in the manner of performance. As the cast of four tell us early on, "This is a story about one fellow/ the greatest emcee, MC Othello/ Now I know what you thinkin'/ Hold on just a minute/ that's a tragedy./ Yep, but there's comedy in it."
Indeed. Four actors appear on stage. Umar Malik plays Othello for the show's entirety, the other three–Alex Church, Miles Scroggins and Alaster Xan-Elias–switch off in multiple roles. The are all terrific. Malik is on solid footing, taking his meteoric rise to the top of the heap among rappers with aplomb, and he easily wears the mantle of top dog. Church is incredibly good as Iago, who in himself plays multiple roles–confidante to Othello, main man bro to Cassio, and conspirator against both–as well as the minor role of Brabantio. Scroggins is totally winning as Cassio, a rising-on-the-charts rapper with a flirtatious but harmless persona, who threatens to surpass Iago in the pecking order and also as Iago's wife Emilia (the mere placement of a scarf signaling the transition), who sees the rancor in him but is to slow to act against it. Xan-Elias is Rodrigo, here a nerdy light tech for the crew who is naively duped into doing Iago's bidding, "groupie" Bianca totally smitten with Cassio, record exec Loco Vito with obvious ties to the mob, and a radio DJ.
But wait, where is Desdemona, the object at first of Othello's undying passion, followed by his overwhelming jealousy? Desdemona is on stage, all right, but portrayed by no actor and speaking no lines. Instead, she appears as a cluster of soft, colored lights that glow brighter or dimmer in sync with her words; her words are issued as music–sweet electronica, its cadence matched with the lights. It is a wonderful effect, showing us when Desdemona is reacting, though we never know what she is saying. We also know–at least, those of other familiar with the original Othello–that it really does not matter what she says, because none of it makes a shred of difference to Othello, who is hell bent on believing what his guys tell him over the word of a woman, even one he so recently adored.
There is another performer on stage, and that is Glorious L. Martin, aka DJ Huh?What??, who spins the beats that play for the entirety of the show, whether through a portion of the rap formed into a song, or as a rhythm line that keeps the actors rapping, even when not fully singing. Martin's Huh?What?? seems to be having a ball up there, confidently providing a foundation on which everything else is built through the course of the show.
Denzel Belin is the director, who keeps the enterprise moving without skipping any of those beats, assuring that the actors transit from one character to another with complete precision, and allowing the comedy and the tension that boils as Othello becomes increasingly unhinged in a fine balance. Belin also designed the costumes, which are brown jumpsuits, worn by each cast member in a slightly different way to mark their character: Cassio's unzipped and pulled down to the waist to indicate his persona as a flirt; Othello's zipped up high to give him the aura of command; and Iago's sleeves cut short to reveal his muscular arms.
Maia Maiden is music director and choreographer. The latter is simple, in keeping with the modestly sized Phoenix stage and the small cast, but its inventiveness adds to the vitality of the show. The scenic design (Vicky Erickson), lighting (Grant E. Merges), and audio (Abe Gabor) serve the play and production very well.
The Q Brothers–full names, as far as I could tell, are GQ and JQ–have been at this kind of thing a while. Othello: The Remix premiered at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London in 2012. Their Bomb-itty of Errors, a comical recast of another Shakespeare play, was an Off-Broadway hit back in 1999. Funk It Up About Nothin' was named Best Musical at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2008 and has since been seen in London, New York, Chicago, and Australia. Then there is I Heart Juliet (Romeo and Juliet), Dress the Part (Two Gentlemen of Verona) and Ms. Estrada (Aristophanes' Lysistrata). The one I am most hoping to see is Q Brothers Christmas Carol. Please, some adventurous Twin City theater, let's bring it in for the holidays.
Meanwhile, Othello: The Remix is a five-star introduction to the Q Brothers and is more fun than you can possibly imagine having at a Shakespearean tragedy squeezed into ninety minutes. Once again, Minneapolis Musical Theatre lives up to their mantra: "Rare Musicals. Well Done."
Othello: The Remix, a Minneapolis Musical Theatre production, runs through May 7, 2023, at Phoenix Theater, 2605 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Premium tickets: adults - $35, students and seniors (65 and up) - $30. General tickets: adults - $25, students and seniors (65 and up) - $20. Economy tickets: $18. For tickets and information, please visit www.aboutmmt.org or call (612)440-6681.
Book and Music: The Q Brothers (GQ and JQ, developed with Rick Boynton; Director: Denzel Belin; Music Director and Choreographer: Maia Maiden; Scenic Design: Vicky Erickson; Costume Design: Denzel Belin; Sound Design: Aaron Newman; Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Audio Design: Abe Gabor; Stage Manager: Cameron Fleck.
Cast: Alex Church (Iago/Brabantio), Umar Malik (Othello), Nick Manthe (understudy), Glorius L. Martin aka KD Huh?What? (deejay), Miles Scroggins (Cassio, Emilia), Alaster Xan-Elias (Rodrigo/Bianca / Loco Vito/Radio DJ).