When’s the last time you simply just had fun at the theater? Unpretentious, unadulterated fun? Those are the operative words that come to mind to describe the semi-musical, These! Paper! Bullets! at the Yale Repertory Theatre through April 5th. The show, described as “a modish ripoff of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing,” transforms the Italian city of Messina to 1964 London where a band, The Quarto, a rock group unabashedly modeled after the Beatles, is all the rage. Add to this scenario a few original songs by Billie Joe Armstrong, front man for the punk rock group, Green Day, and you have an entertaining, if not always compelling, retooling of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies.
As adapted by the playwright Rolin Jones, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and television writer, the mash-up between Much Ado About Nothing and These! Paper! Bullets! syncs up well. Whereas in the Shakespearean play Claudio and Hero meet and fall madly in love with each other, in These! Paper! Bullets! Claude, one of The Quarto’s, meets Higgy, a beautiful model, at a party and the two instantly connect. In Much Ado, the soon-to-be wedded couple and their friends, to pass the time, plot to have the constantly bickering Benedick and Beatrice to cease their verbal sparrings and histrionics and finally fall in love with each other. In the contemporary update there is Ben, the leader of The Quarto, witty and slightly obnoxious who quarrels and matches wits with the well-known fashion designer Bea, cousin to Higgy. And, finally, the vengeful Don John character from the Shakespeare play is present in the spiteful and scheming Don Best, the Quarto’s former drummer (yes, a not-so-subtle nod to The Beatles first drummer, Pete Best, who was unceremoniously ousted from the Fab Four to make way for Ringo) who wants to destroy the happiness of Claude and Higgy by concocting a lurid sex scandal to be unveiled at the wedding ceremony. As with the source material, after some twists and turns, happiness and good cheer prevail by the show’s end.
These! Paper! Bullets!, while a great idea is only a serviceable reshaping of the Bard’s work, coming across as a bit muddled in the beginning, but after settling in midway through the first act the production gathers steam and becomes a more breezy bit of fare. The cast, led by David Wilson Barnes as Ben, Bryan Fenkart as Claude, Jeaninie Serralles as Bea, and Ariana Venturi as Higgy is uniformly fine. Their presentation of Shakespearean type dialogue is more jaunty then proper, but works for the conceit of the show. The other Quarto members, James Barry as Pedro (he’s George) and Lucas Papaelias as Baith (he’s Ringo), are fun-loving and animated. Andrew Musselman as an ill-mannered and crass tabloid journalist, Adam O’Byrne as Don West, the vengeful former band mate, and the men of Scotland Yard, especially, Greg Stuhr as a bumbling and dimwitted inspector add some extra zest to the production.
One of the most exciting aspects of the show are a few original songs penned by Billie Joe Armstrong. They are Beatles-esque, tuneful, and a rousing good time. Armstrong, during the Broadway production of his group’s, American Idiot, was quoted as saying he wanted to write more for the stage. Let’s hope, either in further renditions of this show, or in future endeavors, the Green Day leader continues composing.
Director Jackson Gay keeps the good-natured humor flowing. Occasionally, the large cast is somewhat disorganized on stage and the pacing of the production can ebb and flow. Gay makes good use of rear screen projections to bolster the excitement The Quartos generate. He also incorporates hand held, closed circuit cameras to enhance the immediacy of the moment and that playfully involve the audience.
These! Paper! Bullets!, for those who need both their Beatles and Shakespeare fix, at Yale Repertory through April 5th.