“Othello’s rich, but she keeps me poor
And now it’s time to settle the score
She never lets me get my foot in the door
And this is why I hate the Moor!”
OK, so it ain’t exactly Shakespeare. But of course, that’s the point.
That snatch of rhyme comes from a show called Othello: the Remix, which opens this weekend in a production starring students of Portland Actors Conservatory, directed by Artists Rep resident artist Vin Shambry. It shares something with Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello, in which one of the plausible reasons for the villain Iago’s enmity toward Othello is a promotion that hasn’t gone Iago’s way. But that’s no iambic pentameter, and instead of a higher rank in the Venetian army, the prize that has eluded Iago is higher billing amid the pecking order of a touring hip-hop crew overseen by Othello as star and mogul.
“Now I know what I should be.
I know what I’m worth,
But Othello just ignores me and says “Cassio’s first.”
Yo! Battle after battle after battle with this crew:
I murder mad MCs, but what’s Othello do?
He deals the freshman a fresh hand,
And he makes him his best man,
And lessens my chances by makin’ me Yes Man.”
This rather liberal modern adaptation was created by Chicagoans Gregory and Jeffery Ameen Qaiyum (GQ and JQ), who work under the name the Q Brothers. They’ve been at the hip-hop-theater thing (or “add-RAP-tation,” as they call their approach) for quite awhile, having scored an Off-Broadway hit back in 1999 with the wittily titled The Bomb-itty of Errors, and toured extensively since, including a 2015 appearance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Green Show. Othello: the Remix was commissioned by the Globe Theatre as part of 2012’s London Olympic Games Cultural Olympiad.
For the Actors Conservatory version, Shambry has changed things up in a few additional ways. One of the points of tension in Shakespeare’s play, famously, is that Othello is black (“the Moor”), hence an outsider, an other, in Venice despite his high status. Shambry realigns that conflict: “I made Othello a strong black woman and Iago a black man.”
He credits that shift to the actors at his disposal, especially Julet Lindo, who’ll play the title role. “She blew me out the water,” Shambry says. “I came in thinking that Othello, as this rap mogul, has to be hard, masculine. What I didn’t see at first was the vulnerability. But I saw all of that in her.” Meanwhile, in Xzavier Wolfie Beacham, Shambry found a suitably compelling, mercurial Iago, in this case not the dissatisfied army ensign but instead “a better MC who doesn’t get the limelight.”
Shambry also switched up the Q Brothers approach of “just four guys telling the story.” To accommodate several women amid the small PAC cohort, he created a sort of Greek chorus whose members could comment on the action and step into various female roles within the story. Making sure his young cast — second-year students in the conservatory’s much-lauded training program — has a stable platform, he’s also enlisted such top-rate designers as Sharath Patel and Megan Wilkerson. Even so, he says the students “took this show and made it their own — it’s young, it’s relevant.
“If you came here for Shakespeare, you’ve come to the wrong place,” Shambry says. “My request to everyone who steps into this piece is, step into the poetry. It’s here — the strength, the struggle, the joy.”
“When you buy a ticket to theater, you contract yourself to play make-believe with others,” says Matt Zrebski, the writer, composer and director behind Shiver, the latest project from the Oregon Children’s Theatre Young Professionals program and the latest in a series of phantasmagoric plays Zrebski has created specifically for teen performers.
“I despise the word ‘realism’ with regard to theater, there’s nothing realistic about theater,” he says, voice quickening with conviction. “What we’re searching for is authenticity…I really do love muscular, cathartic theater; when it hits you in a way that film and television just can’t.”
For Zrebski, authenticity isn’t just vital, it’s scary. Or, as he put it in a 2017 interview with ArtsWatch, “I have a driving force around the exploration of fear.” More recently, talking in the Armory lobby of Portland Center Stage, where he works as a resident teaching artist, he seems to refer at once both to Shiver specifically and to his general outlook.
“My big question is about vulnerability. Why are we so afraid of being vulnerable? I feel that when we’re being vulnerable we’re on the precipice of self-discovery.”
As he’s done in previous teen-centered works such as the hit musical Ablaze (a 2013 production by Staged!, following versions at Portland’s Lincoln and Wilson high schools) and Chrysalis (for OCT in 2016), Zrebski takes his young characters to that precipice in Shiver amid an atmosphere of swirling mystery, confusion and danger. During a winter storm, a girl who has locked herself in a closet at a high school pelts her fellow students with unnerving calls and texts. Alongside the developing relationships and conflicts of the others, these messages hint at the fate of a boy who’s gone missing — but who appears periodically, like a ghost, pulling the other characters into musical reveries, songs about their identities and desires, fears and struggles.
These teens, as with so many of their real-life counterparts, face a night gallery of tricky issues: parental conflict, drug use, physical abuse, traumatic memories, fraught family dynamics, financial anxieties, sexual confusion. As one character sums it up, “This is some cold-ass purgatory shit we got going on here.”
Zrebski acknowledges that he consciously pushes against the idea that children’s theater needs to protect its audience. “What better place than theater and art to confront difficult subjects, with responsible adults in the room?,” he asks.
If there are general similarities to his other tales of teens in amorphous, quasi-apocalyptic trouble, that’s intentional: Zrebski pitched OCT last winter on “a sister piece” to Ablaze.
“I love using over external prompts for writing,” he says. “In Ablaze, the metaphor was fire, so this time I just went the other direction, to cold.” The storm lends a sense of danger and urgency and also serves to isolate the characters, often in pairs struggling to work out some thorny interpersonal conflict but also as individuals trapped in their own interior wilderness.
“I wanted to tackle these relationships but also use haunting as a metaphor,” he says, “the way we’re haunted by what we hide.”
It is sad, in a way, that Inherit the Wind — the American classic by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, in which a fictionalized version of the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 stands in for McCarthyism or whatever current threat to factual evidence and free thought — seems to possess such an evergreen topicality. But there should be joy at this Lakewood Theatre Company production, which stars two of Oregon’s greatest actors, Allen Nause and Todd Van Voris, along with a director (Antonio Sonera) sure to sharpen the contemporary relevance.
To lots of folks, beauty pageants are a drag. To others, they are ripe for comedic parody. So, how about a comedic parody in drag? Apparently that’s the gist of Triangle Productions’ Pageant, returning for its second annual run (at the Old Town club Darcelle XV rather than Triangle’s usual home on NE Sandy Boulevard), starring the likes of James Sharinghousen and Pepe Raphael as fabulous female beauty queens.
The events calendar at Artists Repertory Theatre’s website lists Friday’s late-night performance in one place as Don’t Stop Me Now: the Freddie Mercury Experience and in another as Mercury Rising: the Freddie Mercury Experience. In either case, Courtney Freed, a talented Portland singer with a passion for the work of the late Queen frontman, will perform Reece Mashburn’s jazz-inflected arrangements in tribute to the innovative, influential and enduringly (if, to my mind, inexplicably) popular rocker.
When Margie Boule opened in the role of former Texas governor Ann Richards, summer still had a couple of weeks to go. But Ann, written by Holland Taylor, has proven such a hit that it’s been extended time and again. Reportedly it really will close at last this Saturday.
Also about to cross over to the other side of the calendar page are _the Wolf, Samantha Van Der Merwe’s fascinating deconstruction of the Little Red Riding Hood story at Shaking the Tree; Artists Rep’s comedy of earnest self-help efforts, Small Mouth Sounds; the pretzel-plotted thriller Deathtrap by Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage; and the Stumptown Stages staging of the faux-Motown musical drama Dreamgirls in the Brunish Theatre.
Best line I read this week
From a Sunday New York Times style-section story about John Lydon, the no-longer rock-star-thin Public Image Ltd (and former Sex Pistols) singer, at a fashion clothing store:
“With a sprig of strawberry blond hair poking up from his shaved head that made him look like Tintin after a 10-year prison hitch, Mr. Lydon bellowed to a clerk, ‘Show me some basics, in the biggest size a fatty boy can get.’”
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.