The Bard meets The Fab Four in Rolin Jones’ exuberantly entertaining These Paper Bullets!, now getting its West Coast Premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, and while audience members lacking either a soft spot for iambic pentameter or a familiarity with Beatles legend might just end up tuning out, at least during the show’s overlong first act, by the time Act Two rolls around with its Monty-Python-meets-Benny-Hill delights (and with Billie Joe Armstrong’s songs the absolute next best thing to Lennon-&-McCartney circa 1964), it’s hard to imagine anyone not ultimately falling under These Paper Bullets!’ magic spell.
Subtitled “A Modish Ripoff Of William Shakepeare’s Much Ado About Nothing,” These Paper Bullets! is exactly that, Beatrice+Benedict transformed by Jones’ supremely clever script and its mix of Elizabethan syntax and Beatles minutiae into mid-‘60s Carnaby Street Mods.
The Beatles have become The Quartos (the kind of Shakespeare nod that will whoosh over the heads of those less familiar with The Bard), with John, Paul, George, and Ringo turned into Ben, Claude, Barth, and Pedro, the latter of whom has only recently taken charge of drumsticks once held by deposed member Don Best (the kind of Beatles nod that only those familiar with Fab Four lore will get).
As for Benedict’s Beatrice, she is now Ben’s Bea, aka London’s trend-settingest designer, whom folks old enough to recall the ‘60s will recognize as These Paper Bullets!’ tip-of-the-hat to fashion revolutionary Mary Quant, whose signature minis get brilliantly re-envisioned here by costume designer Jessica Ford.
Meanwhile, Much Ado’s star-crossed Claudio and Hero have been transformed into Paul stand-in Claude and toast-of-London Wiggy. (That’s Hero+Twiggy=Wiggy, for those who can still recall when the twig-thin supermodel reigned supreme.)
Following a delicious opening sequence that has a trio of Scotland Yard officials railing against the nefarious influence being exerted by The Quartos on Britain’s youth (with actual footage of frenzied female Fab Four fans intercut with shots of Ben, Claude, Barth, and Pedro in all their mop-topped glory), we’re off to meet The Quartos in a scene that quickly makes one thing clear.
If a) Shakespearean verse sounds like a foreign tongue to you, or b) you don’t know the basic plot of Much Ado About Nothing, or c) you’re unfamiliar with the ‘60s, or d) any combination of the above, you might not enjoy These Paper Bullets! quite as much as its ideal audience of 60something Summer Shakespeare Festival-goers is likely to.
Jones’ mash-up skills are nothing if not ingenious, as when he has onetime Beatle Pete Best turn up as Don Best, aka Much Ado’s Don John, to play the villain. (Just as Don John managed to make Claudio think that Hero was cheating on him by having Borachio shag Hero’s chambermaid Helena and then convincing Claudio he was giving it to Hero, so Don Best does to Claude, though this time it’s These Paper Bullets!’ Boris and Ulcie doing the shagging … with some photo-doctoring aiding in the deception.)
As for Much Ado’s 11th-hour ruse that has Claudio tricked into believing his beloved Hero has met her maker, playwright Jones has one humdinger of a surprise rewrite in store for audiences who stick around for Act Two.
Not everyone at the performance reviewed did so, however, perhaps turned off by language and length. (Though These Paper Bullets! has apparently been shaved by a quarter-hour since its Yale Repertory Theatre World Premiere, another fifteen minutes would make it even stronger.)
Also, though it’s probably futile at this point to ask playwright Jones to be a bit less faithful to Shakespeare Speak (i.e. suggesting rather than mimicking), a more syntactically accessible Act One would likely bring more folks back for These Paper Bullets!’ second act, one which takes flight with an outrageously funny wedding sequence that would do either Monty or Benny proud. (That Queen Elizabeth is a man in drag is just one tip of the hat to those English TV comedy legends.)
One thing that needs absolutely no improving are Armstrong’s Beatles-esque songs, so spot-on that you may find yourself thinking you’re hearing deleted tracks from Meet The Beatles or A Hard Day’s Night. (“Give It All to You,” “It Keeps Me Satisfied,” “Baby Blue,” “Regretfully Yours,” and others are so sublimely groovy, they merit a Meet The Quartos CD asap.)
These Paper Bullets! reunites a number of its Yale Rep cast members under original director Jackson Gay’s imaginative vision/expert supervision—James Barry (Pedro), Christopher Geary (Mr. Crumpet, Anton, and Queen), Brad Heberlee (Mr. Urges and Reverend), Tony Manna (Mr. Cake), Keira Naughton (Ulcie and Belinda Bailey), Adam O’Byrne (Don Best), Lucas Papaelias (Baith), Greg Stuhr (Mr. Berry), and Ariana Venturi (Higgy)—and they are all superb.
New to the Geffen production (which is set to transfer to New York’s Atlantic Theatre Company in November) are Kate Blumberg as Paulina Noble and Frida, Damon Daunno as Claude, Justin Kirk as Ben, Rod McLaughlan as Boris, Nicole Parker as Bea, and L.A. theater treasure Nick Ullett as Leo Messina, and they are every bit as sensational as those who repeat, with three particular standouts.
Ovation Award winner Parker (the dazzling Fanny Brice of 3-D Theatricals’ Funny Girl) positively vanishes inside the evah-so posh Bea, Kirk (who stole gay hearts aplenty in Love! Valour! Compassion! and Angels In America) lets loose his hitherto hidden pop star (including some expert guitar-strumming and vocals) as Ben, and Daunno (fresh off two consecutive Scenie wins for Brief Encounter and Tristan & Yseult) could not be more heartthrobby or hilarious as Claude (in addition to showing off those gorgeous Daunno pipes).
Also making the Yale-to-Geffen transfer are music director Julie McBride, scenic designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Ford, lighting designer Paul Whitaker, sound designer/incidental music composers Broken Chord, projection designer Nicholas Hussong, orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt, dramaturg Catherine Sheehy, and stage manager Robert Chikar, who together make These Paper Bullets! look and sound as ab-fab as can be. (And speaking of design, Beatles fans will get a kick out of The Quartos’ look-alike album covers.)
New to the Geffen are L.A.’s own Kevin Williamson and his outta-sight choreography and fight chorographer Mike Rossmy, whose toilet-paper free-for-all between Scotland Yarders is a Jumping-Jack-Flash gas.
Casting is by Tara Rubin Casting, Phyllis Schuringa, CSA, and Telsey + Company. Bree Sherry is assistant stage manager. Katie Amess, Georgia Dolenz, Joby Earle, David Alan Novak, Sam Trueman, and Matt Wool understudy nineteen roles amongst them.
Given Shakespeare’s “acquired taste” status with this reviewer, I must admit that there were times when These Paper Bullets!’ Bard-talk went in one ear and out the other.
Fortunately, having seen a number of Much Ado About Nothings and having actually lived through the Beatles years, I come close enough to the show’s target audience to give These Paper Bullets! a sideways thumb for Act One and an enthusiastic thumbs-up for a second act that had me on my feet twisting and shouting with glee.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
September 17, 2105
Photos: Michael Lamont