The impulse to rewrite and "modernize" Shakespeare can have gimmicky and stultifying results—A Midsummer Night's Rave, anyone? Tromeo and Juliet?—but Nathaniel Porter's airlift of Othello into the world of scrappy punk bands works surprisingly well. Othello "the Moor," an army general, becomes the singer for a band called Black Vengeance and the only person of color in his scene. Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator who Othello elopes with, becomes Des, the lily-white daughter of a racist country-music star. And Iago, the ensign who's angry that Othello promoted a younger soldier over him, becomes Black Vengeance's manager, who's furious he wasn't asked to play lead guitar.
Plot point for plot point, it's a good fit—in Othello, for example, Desdemona's father accuses Othello of using "witchcraft" to seduce his daughter. "She loved me for the dangers I had pass'd," Othello responds, "and I loved her that she did pity them. This only is the witchcraft I have used." In Black Vengeance, the country-star father-in-law growls: "What do you have her on? Is it cocaine? Meth? Heroin? What is making her act this way?" "We don't need drugs, old man," Othello shoots back. "She likes me. She likes my stories. She likes my scars."
Director Emily Harvey and designer Kasia Rozanska have turned the Ballard Underground into a basement rock club, covering its walls in graffiti—some topical ("Free Pussy Riot"), some Shakespearean ("I did love the Moor"), and some timeless ("Dick punch"). The performances are all over the map, from energetic (Kayla Teel does some creditable snarling as Iago's nihilistic wife Emmy) to too energetic—the male actors tend to show us their emotions by kicking and otherwise assaulting the set, and Tom Stewart as Iago has a habit of bending over and cackling like a cartoon villain.
But Black Vengeance's biggest stumbling block is its singing. A melodic three-piece punk band called Stranger Than Nixon plays upstage while the actors burst into song, musical-theater-style: "If I can put an end to this madness/I can still be in the band/My soul, maybe, won't be damned." Their voices are strong enough for basement rock 'n' roll, but the actors and the band seem to be living in different key signatures. This is forgivable in the more raucous numbers, when the characters are shout-singing their way through songs, but during the quieter, slower numbers, pained expressions kept flickering across faces in the audience.
Still, the structural transformation of the play into the present—and its serpentine story of how racism, jealousy, and manipulation lead to a bloodbath—is ingenious. A little more work on the musical side, and merciless cutting of unnecessary musical numbers, could elevate Black Vengeance into something piercing and difficult.