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.