Shakespeare Festival St. Louis Mixes Beats And The Bard In A Hip-Hop Adaptation
On a recent afternoon at the Ready Room, a rock club in the Grove, a small team was at work rehearsing an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”
There’s a brief delay as a crew member solves a problem with the digital turntable. She gets the hip-hop beats flowing again, and the action continues.
“Dress the Part," which opens at the Ready Room Wednesday, is not so much an adaptation of Shakespeare’s original as a mutation. Written by Chicago-based duo Q Brothers, it transports Shakespeare’s story into a modern-day American high school — and all the dialogue is rapped.
“Shakespeare was a master storyteller who used poetry and musical language to tell his stories,” said GQ, one half of Q Brothers. “Today, who does that apply to? No one but rappers, really. Rappers and other musicians.” If Shakespeare was around today, he added, “he would be MCing over beats.”
GQ and his brother JQ wrote the piece and are directing this production. They performed in a prior incarnation called “Q Gents,” but this is the first time they’re handing the stage to other actors.
Those actors are Garret Young and Jordan Moore. They’re each onstage for all of the show’s 85-minute run time — except for when they run around through the audience — and they each play a long list of characters.
“It definitely feels less like a play and more like an athletic event. When you reach the end of the play, people applaud because you did it, you finished it, you’re still alive,” Young said.
Young and Moore are joined by Crim Dolla Cray, a St. Louis DJ who spins the beats.
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is a comedy about two young men who go out into the world to make their fortunes and pursue their first loves, set in Renaissance-era Verona and Milan.
Scholars believe it may have been Shakespeare’s first play. He uses many of the devices he’d employ throughout his work — characters all fall in love with the wrong person before everything is straightened out at the end, there’s several cases of mistaken identity, and a woman disguises herself as a man while interacting with her male love interest.
But it’s not one of the Bard’s greatest hits, unlike the source material Q Brothers mined for their Off Broadway hits “Othello: The Remix” and “The Bombity of Errors.” They’ve also applied their “ad-rap-tation” technique to “Romeo and Juliet” and “Much Ado About Nothing.”
During a rehearsal break, GQ said that when he and JQ read “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” with an eye on adapting it, a framing concept jumped out at them.
“When we read the original, we saw how ignorant these young boys were in trying to be like men. And we were like: When have we been this stupid? When is anyone that dumb? We looked at each other and were like: High school!”
“Dress the Part” takes place in an American high school. The world of the show is very much inspired by popular movies from the 1980s about teenagers, like “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink.” All the characters start out as stereotypes familiar from those films. There’s the jock, the loner, the “tell-it-like-it-is girl who’s slightly overweight,” as Young raps at one point.
“The stereotypes that exist in the high school setting are so strong already that all we have to do is play into them,” GQ said. “What we love to do in our plays is play into the stereotypes and then flip them on their head."
Over the course of the show, these characters learn to break free from the boxes of social expectations and assert themselves as individuals.
While Shakespeare’s best-known work often includes power struggles among kings and queens and profound ruminations about existence, high school can still be the setting for intense drama.
“If you go back to high school, and you think of the stakes of high school and the circumstances of the girl that you like or the game you have to win, it is so important. It is life and death to high schoolers. It’s everything. It’s their whole world,” Moore said.
“Dress the Part” is a Shakespeare St. Louis production, and it’s part of the expansion of its season beyond the annual mainstage show at Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen and the original outdoor performances celebrating St. Louis-area communities that typically happen in the fall. The troupe staged new-play festivals in the fall of 2018 and 2019.
There’s not a lot of Shakespeare’s language in “Dress the Part,” but Q Brothers based it within the outline of the original story. There are also winking nods at Shakespearean conventions that fans of the Bard will recognize. One running gag has fun with the fact that a female character is able to disguise herself as a male by simply donning a hat.
GQ said the show works for Shakespeare and hip-hop enthusiasts — and those who don't count themsleves fans of either.
“We’ve had a lot of people say, 'I hate Shakespeare, but I really enjoyed this.' We’ve had people say, 'I hate hip-hop, but I really enjoyed this,'” he said. “That’s how I know it’s for everyone.”
If you go
"Dress the Part," produced by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
When: Jan. 29-Feb. 15
Where: The Ready Room, 4195 Manchester Ave., St. Louis
How much: $20-$35. Wednesdays are "pay what you can."
Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.
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