Wednesday, April 26, 2023

"Othello: The Remix" by Minneapolis Musical Theatre at the Phoenix Theater

On William Shakespeare's presumed birthday, I saw perhaps the most original retelling of one of his plays that I've ever seen. Othello: The Remix was created by the Q Brothers, who in 2021 partnered with Theater Latte Da on their "Ghostlight Series" of virtual cabarets for an original series of short music-theater pieces called "The Rap Pack." Their rap and hip-hop retelling of one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies (developed with Rick Boynton) traveled the world and went all the way to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. No one better than Minneapolis Musical Theatre to bring us the area premiere of this ingenious work, the 48th area premiere for this company that specializes in "rare musicals, well done." It's clever and fast and well-cast, and I think the Bard would be pleased to know that his work is still being interpreted and speaks to people living in a much different world than he did (that's really not all that different at heart). Like they say in the show "good storytellers borrow, great ones steal" and the creators of this show stole from the best to make something unique and original. You can see it at the Phoenix Theater now through May 7 only.

Here's my plot summary from my review of Classical Actors' Ensemble's production of Othello last fall: "Set against the backdrop of the Ottoman-Venetian War in the 16th Century. Othello is a Shakespearean tragedy in which Iago convinces his General Othello that his wife Desdemona is cheating on him with his second-in-command Cassio. By doing so he hopes to assume Cassio's position, or even Othello's. In other words, his motivations are power and greed (something all too familiar in today's world). His plan works, at least in that Othello believes him, resulting in tragedy for Othello and his family, but it doesn't work out so well for Iago either. No happy endings in this one, just a lot of lessons learned too late."

Alex Church, Miles Scroggins, Umar Malik, and
Alastar Xan-Elias (photo courtesy of MMT)
Othello: The Remix keeps this general plot, but moves it from this forgotten 16th Century war to the modern world of rap and hip-hop music. All of the players are musicians or involved in the music industry, and the conflict is that Cassio becomes the artist that Othello is supporting and promoting, much to Iago's rage. Like in the original, he wants power and money and fame, and will stop at nothing to get it.

All of this plot is condensed into what would be a tight 80-minute no intermission show, if not for the intermission. But in this case I'll allow it, because this four-person cast is working so hard playing multiple characters and singing many many words in quick succession that they deserve a break, even if the audience doesn't need one (I'd like someone to compare this show to Hamilton's word rate). As per usual, MMT has cast their talent net wide and found a quartet of actors that aren't as frequently seen on professional #TCTheater stages, but each one of them is perfect for their part. Umar Malik takes on the heavy role of Othello, making him sympathetic and likable despite his eventual poor decisions. Alex Church is a deliciously evil Iago (in addition to a few other small roles), delivering sinister soliloquys with glee. Miles Scroggins does double duty as both the brash Cassio, and Iago's put-upon wife Emilia. And Alaster Xan-Elias gets the award for playing the most characters, each with a distinctive accent and personality (my fave: the adorably nerdy Roderigo). Desdemona is the only main character not portrayed, simply represented by a voice and light changes, and we only see Othello's side of their conversations.

#TCTheater actor/comedian/improvisor Denzel Belin directs the piece, so no wonder it's hilarious with great timing (he also designed the costumes - gray coveralls with individual flair, and just the smallest accessory that lets us know which character is which). The clever script is full of too many pop culture references to catch (a few of my faves: "I'm not a witch I'm your wife" and a list of soap operas). Who knew tragedy could be this funny? There's very little spoken dialogue, just a constant patter of rap interrupted by a few more melodic songs. DJ Glorius L. Martin accompanies the cast and is almost a 5th actor, grooving to the music and reacting to the action of the play. Music Director Maia Maiden also choreographed some simple but effective movement. The brick wall covered with graffiti and bright lighting changes contribute to the urban street feel of the story. The lighting of a hidden room seen through a window is particularly affective in the Desdemona scenes, like we can almost see her (scenic design by Vicky Erickson and lighting design by Grant E. Merges).

Minneapolis Musical Theater covers a unique niche in #TCTheater, and they never disappoint. Finding and producing these rare gems, and pulling together a group of lesser known artists who bring their unique talent and heart to the piece. There are approximately 7 million shows playing right now, but I guarantee that there is nothing else like Othello: The Remix. That's reason enough to see it, but it's also really fun, entertaining, cleverly written, and well executed.