Theater directors and adaptors have long enjoyed the challenge of stretching their imaginations to reset one of Shakespeare’s plays in a different time period or location to add a particular resonance to the work or perhaps make speak more clearly to a contemporary audience. But Shakespeare providing the words for a mop-topped four-man rock group at the height of its popularity in swingin’ sixties London?
Remarkably, without stretching credibility too much to accommodate Shakespeare’s plot to the mini-skirted fashion world of the mod Carnaby Street and the frenzied idolatry of the rock group’s teenaged fans, the Yale Repertory Theatre is now offering an engaging, entertaining and genuinely funny take on the Bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing” under the title of “These Paper Bullets,” taken from a line in the play referring to the potency of the jabs and insults hurled between the play’s most famous characters, Beatrice and Benedick.
As adapted by playwright Rolin Jones and directed by Jackson Gay, “These Paper Bullets” recasts Benedick as just “Ben,” the ostensible leader of the band called, in obvious homage to Shakespeare, The Quartos. In addition to Ben, there are three other members, Claude, Balth and Pedro, the latter a drummer brought in to replace his brother Don, who just simply didn’t have the talent to be an effective percussionist for the group. The boys, however, have, in the spirit of good will, kept Don on as a roadie, which has only exacerbated his anger to the point of seeking revenge.
Beatrice in Jones’s hands is now Bea, the hottest fashion designer in London, who is besties with her cousin, the model born Hero but who now goes by Higgy (think Twiggy, of course), the daughter of a local hotel magnate, Leonard (for Leonato) whose chief property is London’s Messina Hotel, Messina being the location of the action in the original Shakespeare. The play opens with the four Quartos returning to England after a wildly successful visit to the United States where they played to sold out, adoring fans at every stop on the tour. Of course, this parallels the buoyant homecoming awarded to the returning soldiers at the beginning of the original “Much Ado.” Claude renews his interest in Higgy and despite some efforts by Pedro’s brother Don to block the relationship before it has even started, the two quickly agree to marry in just a few days’ time.
Because there are so many characters and situations to introduce in this new context of swinging sixties London, Gay and Jones inventively develop a series of televised news items delivered by an irritating BBC reporter, which also introduces such key plot elements as the throngs of screaming teenage girls in thrall to Quartos. I was initially worried about being able to tell the many characters apart, but once the performers settled into their roles and the major characters became distinguishable, and as the familiar plot of “Much Ado” began to emerge, these concerns proved unwarranted.
One of the great triumphs of this production is the smooth, virtually unnoticeable way in which Jones’ dialogue moves effortlessly from Shakespeare’s prose to the slang of the ‘60’s, down to the point of sounding similar in sentence structure and style. As your ear recognizes a line or two from “Much Ado,” the dialogue has smoothly segued into mid-20th century discourse about dress styles or the susceptibility of American girls in different cities. At no time does the heart and soul (or the plot) of “Much Ado” get shortchanged to fit into Jones’ vision; virtually all of an audience’s favorite moments from “Much Ado” are there, including the famous scenes in which Bea and Ben are separately tricked into believing in the other’s love, the denunciation in the middle of a wedding scene as Claude is tricked into questioning Higgy’s fidelity and the comic scenes with Inspector Berry of Scotland Yard (the renamed Dogberry) and his malapropism filled investigation into those who sullied Higgy’s virtue.
And just how do Gay and Jones accomplish that? For example, the two scenes in which Bea and Ben “accidentally” learn about the other’s affections find Ben surreptitiously listening in on his bandmates through a speaker’s box just outside a recording studio, while Bea hides within the ruffles of an old traditional wedding gown that she has agreed to redo for her cousin. The wedding scene includes the noisy arrival of Her Majesty herself (where she is ensconced on the Rep’s balcony to cast her judgmental eye onto the impending nuptials) which requires the entire audience to stand while the BBC reporter introduces unsuspecting audience members as British celebrities from the period, which on opening night found playwright Athol Fugard miming smoking a large cigar when introduced as Winston Churchill. And in keeping with the popularity of the James Bond novels and early films, Inspector Berry and his team are portrayed less as a Scotland Yard infiltrators but more like spies eagerly going undercover accompanied by the latest technology of the time.
I also liked how Gay has carefully devised specific activities for certain characters in an early party scene that while funny in itself will unexpectedly enjoy an even greater comedic payoff in a later scene. That’s the mark of a director who understands and appreciates comedy.
Gay has cast as the Quartos a set of four actors who can sing and play musical instruments as well, since we get to see the guys perform on a concert stage or rehearse in their studio in Leo’s hotel. These songs, by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, do recall the early Beatles’ sound and lyrics, though one of his numbers toward the end of the show contains an unmistakable resemblance to Green Day’s own “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Composer Tom Kitt, who handled the orchestrations and arrangements for Green Day’s “American Idiot” on Broadway and won a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for “Next to Normal” is responsible for the orchestrations and arrangements here as well, while the overall sound coordination and some incidental music is provided by a team from the Broken Chord Collective.
There is also a good deal of 60’s-inspired dancing, supplied by choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, which effectively captures the frenzied spirit of the period while adding some exciting visual imagery to the proceedings.
The cast does an impressive job of conveying the attitude of the period, thanks in part to dialogue coach Stephen Gabis who helps assure that the characters’ accents, representing a wide swath of English dialects, remain consistent and believable. Jessica Ford must have had a field day designing costumes that capture the color and boldness of Carnaby Street fashion, while reflecting the subtle changes in men’s jackets and ties that signaled the start of a broad fashion revolution in the attire of rock stars. Michael Yeargan’s set design has nicely overcome the challenges presented by the need for quick scenic changes, as sliding panels roll in and out to reveal several nicely designed rooms, most notably a large penthouse suite with large windows that overlooks a giant billboard on the side of a building promoting Bea’s fashion line. That set, along with the one representing the suite that serves as the Quarto’s studio, easily provide sufficient space to accommodate the demands of the plot, allowing for a sound room off to the side where Ben can overhear what’s going on during a rehearsal studio or, in the penthouse, a bathroom that serves as a refuge for various characters throughout the evening. His set is also provides two balconies from which the Quarto’s can greet their adoring fans below, who are desperately waiting for any glimpse of the rockers or any news about the upcoming wedding that will take their beloved Claude off the market.
Nicholas Hussong has provided a seemingly endless progression of projections that establish background ambience for the goings-on while simultaneously containing a few ingenious jokes themselves. Look for an airplane flying over the hotel just as the first penthouse scene begins and you’ll understand what I mean.
The cast deserves praise for their yeoman’s work in handling the comedy, the dancing, the music and the occasional absurdity with unqualified aplomb. Jeanine Serralles is quite convincing as Bea, seamlessly conveying the suddenly popular designer’s youthful confidence as well as the veteran warrior in the game of love’s diffidence and aloofness. She packs a presence that reveals her vulnerability while maintaining her character’s backbone amidst all the challenges posed around her. Her counterpart in the Quarto’s, the lead singer Ben, is played by David Wilson Barnes who is appropriately low key and cocky as befits a young man who is experiencing success beyond belief who finds women literally throwing themselves at him. Barnes does depict Ben’s world-weary nonchalance sufficiently enough so that it becomes conceivable that he would like to settle down and start a family, although in Jones' rewrite, Ben remains more of a man-boy with his bandmates before totally succumbing to the idea of life with Bea.
Brian Fenkart demonstrates excellent vocal chops as the shy love struck Claude whose misplaced jealousy upsets his wedding and publicly condemns his beloved Higgy. He captures his character’s fecklessness quite nicely and does a nice job stooping to incredible lengths to try to recapture his former fiancee’s heart. Ariana Venturi’s Higgy goes from drug-enjoying party girl to devoted fiancée just a bit too fast for reality’s sake, but she conveys the character’s youthful desires to live it up and have it all at the same time, while keeping her eye on the prize of being married to a member of the hottest band in the world.
This quartet is well supported by a clearly dedicated cast which includes the other two Quartto’s, James Barry’s Pedro, the replacement drummer, and Lucas Papaelias’s Balth (for Balthasar), who has several opportunities to let go with some splendid guitar riffs. Kiera Naughton plays one of Higgy’s drug-enjoying, sex-loving fellow mini-skirted models, Ulcie, with a welcome abandon that channels Joanna Lumley’s memorable performance as Patsy in “Absolutely Fabulous.” Naughton has a great moment when she rather straight-forwardly suggests a rather complicated and hilariously absurd plan to avenge Higgy. This plan, rejected outright by Bea and her uncle, is famously the actual plan that does indeed get implemented in “Much Ado,” but Jones, with a tip of the hat to Shakespeare, has wisely decided that a more believable alternative is necessary.
Adam O’Byrne is suitably nasty as the rejected drummer, Don Best, who falsely defames Higgy through a doctored photograph while Andrew Musselman is droll and cantankerous as the jaundiced tabloid writer Boris recruited for this purpose. He’s exposed by the Greg Stuhr’s pompously foolish and ridiculously inept Berry who nonetheless allows justice to be served. Liz Wisan disruptedly pops up from time to time as that annoying clueless BBC One reporter, Paulina Noble, while Christopher Geary, who already had been popping up in a variety of roles, makes the most of his brief but notorious turn as Elizabeth II. Of Mr. Berry’s crime-solving associates Anthony Manna is a wonderfully bumbling Mr. Coal who literally throws himself into his duties of filling the penthouse with bugged lampshades, while Brad Heberlee’s Mr. Urges strives to be the voice of reason for his boss, who manages to mangle that advice as well. James Lloyd Reynolds plays the Quarto’s much put upon manager, Anton, with a business minded reliability, having had so much of the band’s caprices that he joins Bea in assuring Claude’s comeuppance.
Special mention should be made of Stephen DeRosa’s hotelier Leonardo, whose accommodating, concierge like presence and fatherly concern for his sometime wild daughter and her entourage helps to assure a convivial atmosphere over the proceedings, including helping audience members take their minds off a supposedly-complex scene change by leading a sing-along of “My Wild Irish Rose.”
There are so many actively working parts in “These Paper Bullets” that it speaks well of Yale Rep’s ability to pull it off. It’s not quite a musical in the conventional sense, as there are only a handful of songs, or actually snippets of songs, which are then only performed by the Quarto’s. It’s obviously more than just a conventional resetting of “Much Ado About Nothing” in a time closer to ours. Much of the humor results from the time period of mid-60’s London and the cultural impact of British rock bands and fashion. In a way, it’s also a tribute to that period and to the Beatles in particular, by reminding us of the historical implication of those years. Not to mention that Jones has made a significant rewrite of some of the actual lines and added plenty of additional ones to better accommodate the situation, while not sacrificing Shakespeare’s rhythms and plot. Yale Rep has staged some impressive Shakespearean productions in recent years, most memorably a gritty “Romeo and Juliet” set in an urban beach community and “The Winter’s Tale” in neatly contrasted the two diverse worlds of the play. With “These Paper Bullets” they take another step forward, providing an entertaining and wonderfully rewarding hybrid of Shakespeare, the Beatles and intelligent comedy.
“These Paper Bullets” plays through April 5 at the University Theater at 222 York Street in New Haven. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 203.432.1234 or visit their website at www.yalerep.org.
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