When I, in my vast antiquity and old-schoolmarmishness, find a hip-hop show in New York insufficiently cool, well, you gotta wonder.
Othello: the Remix is a rap knockoff/parody/reinterpretation of Shakespeare's mighty tragedy; it was written by the Q Brothers, and it's an entertaining (and short) musical evening, attracting a fascinatingly diverse-- ethnically and generationally--audience. A terrific DJ Supernova provdes the music.
I'd seen the Qs' work before: The Bomb-itty of Errors, their version of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, was hilarious: witty as well as laugh- out-loud funny, true to the goofy spirit of the original, yet wildly contemporary. In Othello: the Remix, the updating is heavy-handed: Othello (Postell Pringle) is now not a great general but a rapper gone platinum. He falls in love with a sweet-voiced suburbanite named Desdemona, and after a whirlwind romance, they marry and record together. She is only heard, not seen, in the show, although the murderous pillow becomes a stand-in for the victim near the end.
GQ plays Iago as an over-intense snake, a creep even a child would mistrust. And this lack of subtlety marks the entire show. JQ plays Roderigo as nerd with a funny speech defect, obsessed with Desdemona, sex and video games; he also plays Bianca as a pink-wigged, sex-crazed Latina; and, wearing another wig, he's also the record label's CEO, the tennis-obsessed Ludovico (here amusingly called Loco Vito). Cassio ("just a candy rapper") and Emilia are played by Jackson Doran, the one member of the cast who actually acts rather than illustrates, creating characters we can feel some sympathy for.
And that's the rub: sympathy. If you don't feel both admiration and sympathy for Othello, who here seems merely crass, the entire plot is reduced to a gossip-column entry about a famous rapper who murders his wife over a misplaced piece of bling (what's a handkerchief?). The play's gender issue is here addressed in, "It's a Man's World" sung as a girl group number, acknowledging that Shakespeare's female characters—Desdemona, Bianca and, especially Emilia—are manipulated by men for their own nasty reasons. But it's not as if Shakespeare hadn't already made that point. If the race/outsider issue, central to Othello, is reduced to a flimsy ghetto/suburb dichotomy, the power of that issue is lost.
And although I don't know much about hip-hop, my companion for the evening did, and she was surprised that all the references to rappers and lyrics of the past were so dated. And I was surprised that the language of this rapper world had been scrubbed squeaky clean, making it suitable for kids but sounding inauthentic. Linguistically, the show altogether misses the glories of the original by a mile.
All of which is finally to say that it's one thing to parody a comedy, as the Q Brothers did with their Bomb-itty, it's another to parody a tragedy, unless you have something powerful to say about the flaws in the original. Despite having had a good time watching Othello: the Remix, I left feeling both disappointed and aggravated.
Westside Theatre/Downstairs, on 43rd St. between 9th & 10th Aves.