Othello: The Remix is a Hilarious Hip Hop Retelling of Shakespeare’s Tragedy That Should Not Be Missed!

Minneapolis Musical Theatre has done it again, their tagline is “Rare Musicals. Well done.” and that’s exactly what Othello: The Remix is. Last weekend I reviewed the Guthrie Theater’s handsomely mounted production of Hamlet discussing the role of interpretation and how choices made by the artists can change the focus of Shakespeare’s work. Each artist that approaches one of these classic works tries in some way to make it their own, to find new approaches and make these immortal works speak to their generation. The Q Brothers, authors of this hip hop ad-RAP-tation of Othello may have jettisoned most of Shakespeare’s language, but in doing so, have made his story of jealousy accessible and relatable to the young and middle aged alike. This probably isn’t your Grandma’s cup of tea, but for everyone else between the ages of say 13 to 60 who has some sense of pop culture, it’s sure to entertain.

Set in the world of hip hop, Othello is the hottest rapper around and making bank for his record label First Folio. Othello and his crew are about to go out on a massive tour. The crew consist of Cassio, his latest discovery and his opening act, and Iago, who has been with Othello for years and bridles at being the opener for the opener. The musical opens with a rap about Othello’s beginnings and rise to stardom and then tells of his falling in love with Desdemona whom he marries. Iago hates Othello for showering Cassio with attention and nurturing his career over Iago’s own. He hates Cassio for getting the opportunities he feels he should have been given. He devises a plan wherein he can rid himself of both his enemies. By playing on Othello’s love for Desdemona. He plants the seed of suspicion within Othello’s mind and then continues to shower him with doubt until it bears the bitter green fruit of jealousy. The object of his suspicions is Desdemona’s friendship with Cassio which is innocent. But once Iago sets to work deceiving and manipulating everyone, including the nerdy roadie Roderigo, who is in love with Desdemona, it has the appearance of an illicit affair. The entire show is performed by 4 actors playing around 9 characters total, the one character we never actually see is Desdemona. Shakespeare’s Othello is a tragedy, while staying close to the plot, is decidedly a comedy. The hip-hop lyrics are clever and it’s amazing how naturally this storyline feels in this setting of rap stars and record labels. It speaks to the the reason we continue to perform and adapt Shakespeare to this day; there’s a universality to his themes. This makes it easy to modernize, because while his language may be old fashioned, the ideas and understanding of human emotions are not.

The four cast members are all adept at performing in the hip-hop style. Listening to them recite the lyrics at incredible speeds, one is amazed at their verbal dexterity. I caught a couple of minor slips, but they were covered well and I chalk it up to opening night excitement. Umar Malik plays Othello, he has a laid back quality that suits the character as they describe him, he’s the one performer that just plays the one character. Alex Church is very impressive as Iago, it’s easily the most dynamic role as it is in Shakespeare’s original, he’s the manipulator, the man of action, whereas the others are reactionary characters. Church knows what he’s about in every moment of the show, easily distinguishing between Iago and the other characters he plays. And always finding every ounce of humor, whether it be a voice or just a look, he leaves nothing on the table. Miles Scroggins plays Cassio and Emilia, who is Iago’s wife. Most of the performers play both male and female characters. In this way, the Q Brothers are mirroring the way Shakespeare was performed originally when women were not allowed to act and all characters were played by men. But it may also be a comment on one of the major criticisms of Shakespeare’s work in general, there are not a lot of great roles for women. The audience favorite is Alaster Xan-Elias, they play Roderigo and Bianca among other roles. As Roderigo, Xan-Elias perfectly plays the nerdy video game, figurine collecting roadie, with a spot of voice that instantly calls to mind everything his characters embodies. Xan-Elias gets the two meatiest roles, Bianca is Cassio’s lover who is clearly one restraining order away from a stalker. Xan-Elias is rewarded for their brilliant character work with more laughs than every other performer put together. Also on stage throughout the show acting as the DJ, is Glorius L. Martin aka DJ Huh?What??, who also provides the pre-show music. I’m not a huge hip-hop fan, but this cast and the clever script by the Q Brothers, easily made me a fan of this show.

Minneapolis Musical Theatre does a lot with very little as evidenced by the behind the scenes double duty. Denzel Belin is the Director and Costume Designer for the show and Maia Maiden is Music Director and Choreographer. If these two were overstretched, it doesn’t show. While the stage at the Phoenix Theater isn’t very big, Belin uses what he has very effectively and guides his cast through their character changes using minor but clear changes to costume so that the audience is always clear which characters are in any given scene. Likewise, with real estate being in short supply, Maiden’s choreography has to be minimalistic. Maiden makes good use of a rolling platform make use of different levels to add to the visual appeal to the staging of some numbers.Vicky Erickson is the Set Designer and again it’s simple but effective making great use of the space and filled with little details that give it a nice urban feel.

I highly recommend Othello: The Remix, it does contain some strong language and sexual references but nothing that someone age thirteen and older can’t handle. It runs through May 7th at the Phoenix Theater in Uptown for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.aboutmmt.org/othello-the-remix/ . Minneapolis Musical Theatre really does bring us some fantastic productions that no one else is likely to and as they say, they do them well. Help to keep this company going in these difficult post pandemic times, firstly by buying tickets and going to see this unique and hilarious show. But you can also go one step further and make a donation so that they can continue to bring us these little treasures. To do so, go to https://www.aboutmmt.org/support/

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