I am a High School teacher by day. One of the games I play when introducing a Shakespearean work is called “Hip Hop or Shakespeare.” I give the students a list of twenty quotes, and they have to identify them as Shakespeare or famous hip hop lyrics. You would be amazed how hard it is, well, everyone except Josh Thomas and Caitlin Carbone, the masterminds behind fools and madmen. So if you think your skills are on point, here is a sample round: (1) “Sigh no more ladies, men were deceivers ever…” (2) “I would rather everybody to hate me than to love a fake me.” (3) “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.” (4) “I already know that I’m going to hell, but I’m going with ice dripping, no need to wish me well.” (5) “Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.” (6) “My intergalactic sadness mixed with my natural nack for badness.”
So, if you are on point in your skill set, you know the odd numbers above are lifted straight from the text of “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare. The even numbers though are Josh Thomas’ take on Shakespeare by his process of taking entire scenes, lifting them, translating and scanning, and remixing them into original hip hop songs. The band, by the way, is the backbone of the production and completely and utterly amazing- massive shout outs to Matthew Ancarrow, K’wuan Colbert, and Josh Thomas who kept the beat going all night long without missing a stroke. Somebody get those boys a drink!
If you are unfamiliar with the play, here is the watered down super spark notes version. Claudio and Hero fall in love and plan to be wed. Their friends, Beatrice and Benedick both hate each other and swear marriage is the root of all evil. As a ploy and joke, the friends all conspire to convince each of them that the other is in love with them. Enter a bad guy- the bastard prince who wants to foil this splendor, and comes up with a plan where he beds Hero’s servant while she wears Hero’s clothes, and times it so that Clauido and company get an extra sneak peek (yikes!) Claudio disgraces her at the wedding, and her parent Leonata pretends she is dead. Once convincing Claudio that Hero was pure, it was a set up, etc. she guilts him into marrying another relative. But, surprise, it is Hero in disguise. All’s well that ends well, oh wait that’s another play. This one ends with everybody happy, Dogberry as an ass, and the villains vanquished.
Every single cast member was on point, from their dancing, to their spitfire lyrics, keeping time while dancing and rhyming and pantomiming- damn. Beatrice was played by Ayesha Gowie and her hard heart can’t skip a beat, except when driving home the point via lyrics of ice about Benedick. That girl was fire! And no costumer was credited but her top was stunning. I found myself admiring the quality and craftsmanship (I’m a costuming nerd, sorry). Opposite her was Benedick, portrayed by JC Payne. Payne’s panache was his facial expressions. From his straight jacketed frowns, to his eye rolls at Beatrice, his face gave away all his emotions and I was here for all of it. Their rap battle of bitter exchanges was also a crowd pleaser. Just the preview night I attended people were reacting with damns, smh, etc., I can see the students taking sides and becoming more animated as each Beatrice and Benedick get served in turn.
The prince, Drew Anderson as Don Pedro was electric in his purple blazer and lion emblazoned shirt. His smug look as if the world made him skeptical was a sure fire hit for all the misgivings in this play. The foil and villain to his highness is Don John, Okechi Onyeje, who had limited stage time, but for each entrance rushed the stage with urgency and authority. His sidekick, and one of my two favorites of the evening, was Grant Emerson Harvey and Borachio. His number in the middle of the play “Super Villain theme song” is catchy, hilarious, and validating. For the Shakespeare nerds, Don John is painted in a sort of two-dimensional cutout of a villain. He wants to ruin others happiness, but there isn’t a lot of back story or motivation to why. Thomas takes this opportunity to introduce it to us in his opening monologue- where he raps it a cappella and sets the stage for the audience. His introduction not only fleshes out the vices such as ego and jealousy that drive people to become evil, he also introduces modern and fresh topics such as toxicity in men, and how “we should listen to women.” Snap snap indeed.
Zipporah Brown made her entrance as Margaret, one of Hero & Beatrice’s ladies, but shines in her comedic role as an “ass,” I mean Dogberry, the slow-witted constable. With her jacket misbuttoned, her cock-eyed stares, and flashlight investigations, she is the funniest to laugh at and along with. Leonata is played by Wendy Lewis. For those not brushed up on their Shakespeare, Leonata is traditionally a male role and the flip here works perfectly. Not only because I am all about gender blind casting, but also because the strong matriarch role in the family is one that I think the students and audience can associate with and relate to more easily. It gives the role a pragmatic but also sensitive look at her daughter’s disgrace, and her efforts to bring her back full circle into marriage.
And then there are the initial lovebirds that spark all the ado and light the match of Beatrice and Benedick too- Hero and Claudio. Hero, Tina Canady, and Claudio, Quincy Vicks, were my other favorite of the night. From their songs “let’s stir some shit” and antics, their knowing looks, their betrayal, and aright of love in the end, they were too cute to watch and had real chemistry on stage. The wedding scene where Claudio calls Hero’s maiden status into question and publicly shames her, looks like it will break them both.
Aladrian Wetzel directed this with a firm hand a swift chop. The songs are up tempo and move us quickly through some of the more tedious action sequences. Thomas’ Intro, the lyrical infusion of hip hop, and the textual rifts all culminate into a rich and astounding performance that is ripe with potential. I know their mission is to take it to the schools of Baltimore City this week, BUT you would be a fool, or madman, to miss this next weekend at Motor House. If possible, this is even finer than their Lear- and I see big things ahead for the company, the actors, and fools and madmen. I will be watching and waiting. I am a super fan already.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? It isn’t optional, and it isn’t a drill Baltimore- you’ve got to go see this for its brief engagement at Motor House 5/31-6/2. This is definitely in the top five of things I’ve seen this year on the stage (in case you were wondering, we’ve reviewed 35 so far)- and fools and madmen are going to be huge- so say you saw them first when they were local and little. Thomas is a fucking fantastic lyricist and musician and Carbone’s edits seal the deal on a perfect, utterly breathtaking night of theater. This is the remix you’ve been waiting waiting for. For Shakespeare purists and geeks, it is a modern twist, and for music fans an intimate concert- there is literally something for everyone- love or hate Shakespeare- you have got to check this out! (I)
Running at the Motor House 5/31-6/2. Running time, a little over an hour with no intermission.