Funk It Up About Nothin' Chicago Shakespeare Theater
There's an episode of Family Guy in which Brian, the alcoholic talking dog, is hired as a substitute teacher at an inner-city school. Desperate to make Shakespeare "relevant" to his students, he tries teaching them Romeo and Juliet ghetto style, referring to Juliet as Romeo's "beeyatch" and so on. After a short, pregnant pause, a Latino kid responds, "Yo, that's racist, man." Adds another student, "Yeah, dawg, that's jus' ignorant."
Funk It Up About Nothin', Chicago Shakespeare Theater's new "ad-rap-tation" of Much Ado About Nothing, isn't racist. Its multiethnic cast (six actors and DJ Adrienne Sanchez) comfortably and authentically embrace hip-hop and the urban culture it expresses. But it is ignorant, or at least it celebrates ignorance.
The show's Chicago-bred author-director-stars Jeffrey and Gregory Qaiyum—aka JQ and GQ—are smart young men, and their stated goal of putting "Shakespeare in the hands of everyone, from profs to pimps to punks to poets" is admirable. If you believe that the Bard is the bedrock of Western literature, it's even necessary. But in compressing Much Ado into a 70-minute rap musical, the Q brothers have dispensed with Shakespeare's language—and, more important, with the complexity of thought, emotion, and character that goes with it.
The plot comes pretty much straight from the source. It concerns two couples—the romantic Claudio and Hero and the bickering Benedick and Beatrice—whose relationships are shaped and twisted by friends and foes. Claudio and Benedick, originally soldiers back from a victorious military campaign, are now rappers returned from a successful tour. Claudio falls in love with Hero, the innocent daughter of the elderly Leonato, and they plan to marry. But the wedding's off when a jealous rival, Don John, tricks Claudio into thinking Hero's not a virgin. Meanwhile, Benedick verbally spars with Hero's cousin Beatrice, now called MC Lady B; neither wants to admit being in love for fear of being rejected. It's up to the other characters to make these two couples overcome their misunderstandings and their pride.
The Q brothers capitalize on the strength of Shakespeare's story and the sexual comedy it's filled with. But what they don't seem to understand is that it isn't just the plot that makes the story: the eloquence and intelligence of the language and the complex emotional journeys the characters take are just as important. The Qs' simplistic, relentless rhymed couplets don't allow for the subtleties of self-discovery. Neither do their broad, lewd jokes about dick size and pubic hair, boobs and booty, vibrators and inflatable sex dolls, or their homophobic jabs at closet queers and swishy queens. Missing from this show are Shakespeare's immensely clever layering of sexual allusions and the rich, long-phrased rhetorical style he so brilliantly used to meld humor, passion, and pain into a distillation of the human experience. The witty wordslinger Benedick—Benny here—is reduced to describing himself as a "cunning linguist."
This is adolescent stuff. It will make adolescents laugh, but it keeps the show at an adolescent level. And it incidentally raises a question: in the hypersexualized urban setting in which the story now takes place, would Claudio really care whether or not Hero's a virgin?
Visually, Funk It Up About Nothin' is a celebration of color and speed. Debbie Baer's anything-goes costumes clash joyfully with the Day-Glo graffiti adorning Brian Sidney Bembridge's streetscape set. Lightning-fast costume changes and rapid-fire entrances and exits enhance the production's high energy.
As Benny, JQ conveys a laconic quirkiness that sharply contrasts to the sassy, strutting attitude Ericka Ratcliff brings to MC Lady B. GQ brings a genuinely commanding presence to the doddering Leonato, the comic constable Dingleberry (originally Dogberry), and especially the darkly devious Don John. Indeed, his portrayal of Claudio's nemesis comes closer than anything else in the show to making the Shakespeare-rap fusion work.
Postell Pringle doubles as a macho rap star and a flamboyantly gay cop. Hunky Jackson Doran and petite Elizabeth Ledo make an improbably perfect couple as Claudio and Hero. Doran also does a nice John Wayne parody as the traveling judge who presides over Hero and Claudio's wedding. The fact that Doran can't possibly play both Claudio and the judge in the same scene gives the actors a chance to break character and snicker at the show's silliness—one of those pandering Carol Burnett/Jimmy Fallon bits: I can't keep a straight face, I'm gonna crack up onstage, oh gee I'm a real person just like you. It's cheesy, but it gets a laugh.
Funk It Up About Nothin' is basically loud, lightweight fun. If teenagers buy JQ's line that Shakespeare was "the original rapper," and if that makes them at least try to give the Bard a chance next time they encounter one of his plays in class, fantastic. But I wonder how many kids will stick with him once they realize that his language and the depth of thought it demands don't quite match the Qs' reductive rewrite.v
Care to comment? Find this review at chicagoreader.com. And for more on theater, see our blog Onstage.