Illinois Shakespeare Festival: “Q Gents”

The Q Brothers‘ latest project, Q Gents, was perfectly timed considering the start of the school year next week here in central Illinois. A tale of two football buddies whose love affairs bring out the best and worst in their friendship, the production is the latest in a fifteen-year run of rap-adaptations by the duo. I first saw them when they premiered Funk It Up About Nothin’ back in 2008 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and then again in 2010. Their Othello: The Remix was the US representative to the Globe Theatre’s cultural olympiad in 2012. Now the boys are back in Illinois workshopping a two-man show initially commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, played this summer at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and extended for two additional weeks at Illinois State University before they move onto the Three Oakes Theatre Festival in Michigan (in the company of one of my favorite Chicago troupes, The Hypocrites). While the program bills the production as “new work in progress,” by the time I saw it in its extended run it was streamlined, fast-paced, and polished. The Q Brothers specialize in rap-aptations of Shakespeare’s works, rewriting every inch of the text to fit conventional modes of contemporary rap rhythm, meter, and thematic tone. While we might think of this formula as something more akin to the Broadway musical than sixteenth-century theatre, instead this transposition recovers the lyrical quality and recitative speed through which early modern playgoers would have received the plays in their initial context.

Proteus (JQ) and Valentine (GQ) consider “getting some strange.”

As two male actors, both brothers needed to play female characters—another element of early modern performance. Not only did we get very smooth and very very fast quick changes—almost always on stage—but gradually the characters became self-aware and began to make fun of the plasticity between the genders. The baseline was a simple football jersey and cap, over which would be draped a halter dress and wig to demarcate female characters. It is when Julia herself needs a disguise to spy on Proteus that the fiction threatens to fall apart. She goes to the drama teacher for help, only  to discover a simple teal hat does the trick. Much is made of the hat’s covert powers, with winking and teasing of the audience that acknowledges the limits of costume to create fiction. The fun is in the same spirit as that of Rosalind in the epilogue to As You Like It, where the female character acknowledges the boy actor under her skin:

It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue; but
it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue…I charge
you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of
this play as please you; and I charge you, O men, for the love
you bear to women—as I perceive by your simp’ring none of you
hates them—that between you and the women the play may please.
If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that
pleas’d me, complexions that lik’d me, and breaths that I defied
not; and, I am sure, as many as have good beards, or good faces,
or sweet breaths, will, for my kind offer, when I make curtsy,
bid me farewell.

In acknowledging the limits of the materials used to conjure theatrical experience, both Rosalind and the Q Bothers highlight the creative capacity inherent in what we call “willing suspension of disbelief.”

A slightly adjusted stage design (DJ included) for the indoor ISU space.

The real display of mastery over Shakespeare’s language was in the development of the secondary characters in the production, particularly the coach, Speech, and Lucetta. As a close confidant of the semi-goth, semi-punk art chick, Julia, Lucetta is crafted as a Latino transplant with a thing for flautists. (The essential divide between Julia and Proteus is that because he’s a jock and she’s a nerd, they can’t openly be together in this high school setting.) While capitalizing on Latino wing-(wo)man stereotypes, in act four the play takes a breath to skewer the convention. Crab, the dog, has been made simply into the school’s mascot, and Speed the clown is now a drum-major in which the boys confide. He and the waterboy, Lance (and yes, Adam Sandler jokes were aplenty), at one point make a video advertising the position of waterboy’s assistant, to which Julia applies in her teal-hat disguise. Lance is a bit daft, connecting the lack of budget for new water bottles with a possible apocalyptic collapse, and so too is the coach, set apart by mercilessly mixing idioms to be totally without sense. In this way, the production uses costuming to initially build a character, but them gives them arc with through wordplay.

Speed (GQ) and Proteus (JQ) hatch a plan to woo Silvia.

Perhaps what made me most pleased about the production aside from the Q Brothers’ retrofitting of early modern practices to modern audiences was that it retains what I consider to be the play’s the essential tension. At the start, it would seem that Proteus is the “hero” or “good guy,” following his heart and rejecting football to spend time making art with his beloved. Valentine mocks him mercilessly and thinks of nothing else but the scouts and the homecoming game until he sees Silvia, and falls head over heals, too. He ends up cheating on an exam to prove his love, and is suspended not only from school, but the big game. In the meantime, Proteus has been conscripted back to the team and forced to reject Julia by dad, and so pursues Silvia instead. While Valentine is ennobled by his ordeal, Proteus’ worst traits are revealed. By the end of the play we aren’t sure who to cheer for or if there is anyone worth siding with. That Speed and Lucetta are crowned prom king and queen resolves the immediate discomfort, but the notion that you may never know one’s inner virtue until they are tested (even in a beloved) remains with you long after. If you can catch the Q Brothers’ this weekend at ISU’s Center for the Performing Arts, I recommend you make time to do so.

On the myths and purposes of playing in Krannert’s “Polaroid Stories”

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.

–  Hamlet, Hamlet

I am on my way to Idaho as I write this review, and I can’t help meditating on the striking difference between the hard reality of the cool northwestern mountains and the bizarre unreality of the corn desert that is Illinois. I mention this because I feel it is as apt a description as I can come up with for the jarring juxtaposition between a piece of theatre that has “presence,” that seems to be participating in the concerns of the time in which it is performed, and a play that does not. This sense of presence is one of the things I, and many others, love about William Shakespeare’s works: although written for and of a culturally-specific time and place, those plays seem to uniformly share an uncanny capacity to be imbued with a sense of presence.

SKINHEADboy (Ryan Leonard) and SKINHEADgirl (Kara Satokoun) contemplate their labyrinth.

I think we often confuse what I am calling presence here for “relatability,” which earlier this summer Ira Glass rather infamously accused live Shakespeare, New York’s Shakespeare in the Park no less, of lacking. Different than say exigency or presence, relatability bothers me as a rubric for aesthetic value for a couple of reasons. First, it exclusively privileges the individual subjectivity: I see a character that resembles my self on stage, and the more that character holds a mirror up to my nature, the more relatable this piece of art is. There is no way to find a communal aspect to this decadently narcissitic theory of processing a theatrical experience. And so second, this presumes an excessively shallow capacity of audiences: they either see something that looks like them and derive pleasure from the substitutional spotlighting of their identity, an identity that already exists. Thus, theatre is rendered incapable of saying anything new or illuminating, but as a form relegated to purely derivative and mimetic methods of meaning-making.

When Hamlet discusses his theory of acting, what he calls “the purpose of playing,” he speaks of a moderation and balance through which theatre is capable of showing “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Shakespeare is careful to make the distinction that theatre’s ability to mirror is not to reflect us as individual playgoers but rather the aspect and problems with which our society grapples. Another way to say this is that theatre is political in that it stages problems, sometimes offering a menu of solutions we might imagine, but doesn’t necessarily a) make claims for a single answer, nor b) simply reflects society as it already exists. By saying that a play, Shakespeare or otherwise, is successfully embued with a sense of presence is to say that we collectively as a multitude of playgoers see within its reflection a problem, tension, or debate with which our time grapples.

Orpheus (Shawn Pereira) and Eurydice (Alexis DawTyne) sing empty words of love to one another.

But why this discursus on Idaho and relatability? When trying to come up with a way of approaching a review of Illinois Theatre’s production of Polaroid Stories, all I could do was come up with a list of details and choices that I disliked that didn’t amount to anything. A list of critiques that go nowhere is the worst kind of review, at least in my opinion. I just felt so belabored as an audience member on Krannert’s opening night, watching so much effort on the part of the actors and in the set design that gave way to frustration to make a coherent sense of the action and the words in players and playgoers alike. Polaroid Stories is one of a string of plays Krannert has staged in recent years that takes mythic abstraction as its central conceit. Like medieval morality plays, characters aren’t so much versimilitudinous as they are embodiments of virtues, vices, concepts. I’m thinking here of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, O BeautifulIphigenia and Other Daughters among others. Mice and men and gods are collapsed onto the same plane of existence, but in all of these the actors have been directed to act as if individual subjects rather than as universal concepts engaging with one another. How does one uncover inner motivation for Self-Love, for example? Again, like relatability, the point is not individaul subjectivity as such, but the collision of emotions, affects, concepts and the tensions they produce.

Let me explain by way of example. In Polaroid Stories, the gods are brought down from Olympus and placed in the bodies of disaffected and self-destructive urban youth culture: sex and drugs without the rock n’ roll. Theseus and Ariadne are skinheads wandering the labyrinth of speed and cocaine: a thread of “fuck yous” leads not to a minotaur (arguably that would be the drugs themselves) but to their mutual self-destruction. Orpheus is trapped within a cage for much of the play into which a ladder descends that he never takes out. This would suggest that the play world, our world, is the hell he descended to bring back his beloved. We are then a prior damned. But why? Eurydice dances, taunts, and tramps about his cage, egging him to violence, insisting she would rather forget, insisting she would rather remain in Hades. The yarn of “I love yous” she and Orpheus weave builds only to a mutual self-destruction as well. Both love narratives imply that love is not a desire universally shared: she/we do not want rescue, but love is the only tempting (although ultimately failing) distraction from that self-annihilation.

Orpheus (Shawn Pereira) can’t help but see his beloved in every woman, including Persephone (Martasia Jones).

What are we to do with a play like this? On the one hand the direction valorizes the individual crosses we have to bear that condition subjectivity. On the other hand it wants to make claims for self-destruction as a fundamental and universal truth of the human condition: as if to say destruction, nor survival, is our basest nature. I’m not saying you can’t have your cake and eat it, too; what would be the point of cake. But theatre as a form seems fundamentally at odds with this attempt to make two claims without fully staging the problem, the tension, the source from which they derive. Is it the drug culture and the urban poverty we allow? If so, this barely registers as a concern of the play—partly because the dialogue is flat, unimaginative, full of platitudes and fuck yous. This makes me wonder who this play is for, exactly?

This weekend the MFAs are doing a table reading of Lizuka’s newest play, to which the audience was invited to get a first-hand look in on the creatve process of an up-and-coming, cutting-edge American playwright. I’ve mentioned this in several reviews of Krannert productions, but at times I think with plays like these Krannert is doing a disservice to its students actors and student audiences—its core constitutencies, at least in theory—by wanting to be a nationally-renowned theatre. The commissioning of new work through the Sullivan Project is admirable, and the performance exchanges with England and Japan indeed incorporate the actors into the production process more deeply as they expand their toolbox. But content, a content that is capable of presence, is what matters at the end of the day, I should think. It doesn’t have to be relatable theatre, but it should have the potential to be relevant, if at least cogent. At intermission in the women’s restroom the only conversations being had were “is that it?” and “do you get what’s going on?” The play, not of its own fault but perhaps rather in those who selected it, willfully ignores its context. Like Campbell attempting to render an aesthetic like Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet for classical mythology, it misses the point that the MTV generation is about to move into their 40s. What does this play present for the Millennials, accutely globalized in their interests, politcs, and consumption practices? And these college kids made it to university, even if it is wedged in the corn fields. What is the point of depicting a self-destructive urban-youth culture except to preach to their own naivete? I thought theatre was about revelation rather than making one feel like an idiot; with rampant impostor symdrome in undergradute and graduate students alike, that is an emotion we are already far too familiar with.

Eurydice (Alexis DawTyne) finds a moment of authenticity with G (David Monahan).

I feel like Artaud in the vitriolic temperament this review is taking, as when we decries “An idea of the theater has been lost. And as long as the theater limits itself to showing us intimate scenes from the lives of a few puppets, transforming the public into Peeping Toms, it is no wonder the elite abandon it and the great public looks to the movies, the music hall or the circus for violent satisfactions, whose intentions do not deceive them.” What I mean to say here is not quite so dire, is not how the play fails at its own asprations, but rather how Polaroid Stories is a symptom of a theatre culture that doesn’t know how to be present for its changing audiences as the baby boomers and octogenarian subscribers literally die out. I like a big-budget musical as much as the next person, but surely our theatrical landscapeis capabale of more than comfort food and shock treatment? Have we given up on theatre as a form of political thought? An experience in which our very presence renders up political and politicized subjects? I hope not, nor do I think this has come to pass. For one, I would turn you to my review of Sean Graney’s All Our Tragic, the 12-hour mythic marathon that has sold out in its final month and received funding for a remount in 2015. That is a work day and a half of abstractionist theatre, and midwesterners are eating it up! Without the financial motivation of having to sell seats being a university theatre, I think Illinois Theatre has become complacent in their season choices, less concerned with doing actual ideological service to ad engendering a theatre-going base regularly habituated to performance. What are they training these actors ofr anyway, if not for making a living in the theatre? Or has that aspiration gone the way of Olympus, in the clouds, as well?