Q Gents is a hip-hop reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona currently featured at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington-Normal. Created and performed by the two-man acting troupe the Q Brothers (Chicago-based brothers Jeffery and Gregory Qaiyum, or JQ and GQ), it transplants the action of Shakespeare’s play to a contemporary prep school, replacing the geography of Italy with the high school social landscape. The resulting play is an awkward but occasionally rewarding production during which I laughed and cringed in equal measure.
Though Q Gents bills itself as hip-hop Shakespeare, fans of that culture will find little to recognize in this production aside from the steady backbeat provided by a wordless and nameless DJ. (ProTip: Check out the DJ’s booth during dance numbers.) The opening number in particular has a high-school-musical-esque feel that can be startling for an audience member expecting something resembling actual hip-hop or rap. The Q Brothers have said that their add-RAP-tations are moving away from rap and toward wide-ranging musical adaptation, and that trend appears to be nearly complete in this production — straightforward musical theater styles and music from the 80s are much more noticeable influences. Though it may not be hip-hop, the play does eventually settle into a mostly enjoyable teen sex comedy, complete with metaphorical penises and actual howling at the moon.
In Shakespeare’s play, Valentine and Proteus are the best of bros, even though Proteus is annoyingly in love with hometown girl Julia. As the play opens, Valentine is sent off to another city to become a man, while Proteus scams a way to stay in town with his lady. In his new city, Valentine falls in insta-love with Silvia, whose powerful father wants her to marry the wealthy Thurio. Meanwhile, Proteus’ father decides his son has been laying around the house for long enough, and Proteus is to be shipped off to join Valentine — no ifs ands or buts. Heartbroken, Proteus and Julia exchange promise rings and are parted. However, as soon as Valentine and Proteus are re-united, Proteus also falls in insta-love with Silvia. (She’s quite a lady.) Hijinks and bro double-crossing ensue, Julia sets out looking for her man while dressed as a boy, and Silvia just wants everyone to leave her alone so she and Valentine can get together. The play ends with Valentine’s discovery of Proteus’ back-stabbing, at which point Proteus finally recognizes the error of his woman-stealing ways and the two pledge to be bros for life.
Q Gents follows a similar basic structure, though in this production Valentine and Proteus are the star QB and wide receiver, Silvia is the new cheer captain, and Julia is the moody art chick. Thurio, the main impediment to anyone’s relationship with Silvia in the original play, is replaced with Silvia’s own requirement that her boyfriend be “double-smart,” a standard Valentine in particular finds challenging. In one of the many awkward moments of this adaptation, the promise rings are replaced by a black lace bra. (You read that right.)
The true joy of this production is two-fold. First, this is a two-man play, with the many characters represented by a set of simple costumes and wigs. Though this can lead to problems, it’s a kind of acting that’s best appreciated live. The quick costume changes can sometimes feel a bit like watching your talented friends screw around with the prop closet, but in a way that feels charmingly intimate, rather than amateurish. And it allows for a running gag regarding a teal hat that is one of the better callback jokes in the second half of the play. It also requires incredibly precise staging that helped add polish to the show. In particular, a scene near the end where the two men repeatedly swap costumes on stage was expertly executed, and deserved the round of applause it received.
The other joy of this play is the football coach. While this production overall features very little of the fast, complicated wordplay from Shakespeare’s original, the coach somewhat makes up for it by speaking consistently in run-on proverb. The production overall is packed with jokes, mostly those already familiar to fans of teen sex comedies and satires. But the coach’s unhinged, Frankensteinian platitudes were what most consistently had me rolling, whether he was assuring a nervous player that “Last week is another day” or acknowledging unfortunate roster changes with the reminder that “A chicken with its head cut off is always half empty.” Attendees in search of extra layers to the experience will also enjoy the pop culture references embedded throughout, ranging from the Breakfast Club to John Travolta to the Cars (the band) to the Little Mermaid.
Though the production does have high points, it doesn’t always feel entirely firm on its feet. The fast costume changes and broad impersonations of this style of acting can be exhilarating to watch, but there is also a danger of performers eclipsing their own talents. Most of the male characters felt differentiated and fully formed, though the nerdy marching band flautist did tend to Urkel-like broadness. On the other hand, the drag performances felt painfully stilted at first, though the actors seemed to relax into them as the show went on. Even then Lucetta, Julia’s Latina friend, repeatedly verged on unfortunate stereotype.
In addition to the technical challenges, anyone hoping for a socially-conscious update of one of Shakespeare’s more haphazard and misogynist plays will be disappointed, as the production doesn’t commit to anything more than a gooey declaration that Cliques Are Bad, Man (particularly if you want to get laid). The removal of wealthy rival suitor Thurio is also somewhat disorienting in a play that can already feel like a random collection of things that happen. In Shakespeare’s original, Silvia genuinely likes Valentine and is actually on the verge of running away with him when they are thwarted by Proteus’ machinations. In this production, Silvia herself appears to initially object to Valentine, which then muddies everyone’s actions and motivations, in a production that already has a lot going on.
Fans of live theater won’t want to miss this tightly staged and exuberant two-man show. Likewise, fans of awkward humor and broad teen culture jokes will find a lot to enjoy in a production that features a predictable cast of emasculated nerds, dumb jocks, stoner skaters, and spicy Latina princesses. Anyone hoping for a nuanced interpretation of Shakespeare, or anything remotely resembling hip-hop, would be better off looking elsewhere.
Q Gents is playing at Ewing Gardens as part of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, and runs July 22nd, 24th, 28th, August 1st, 4th, 7th, with most performances beginning at 7:30 p.m. Single tickets start at $35, but discounts are applied on Tuesdays or when multiple-show passes are purchased. For more complete scheduling and ticketing information, see the Festival website.