Since April 23, 2016 is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death, it shouldn't be surprising that homages to the great playwright will be popping up right, left and center. Already available is Mike Bartlett's Charles III, a hot-ticket contemporary vision of the next English monarch's reign told with Shakespearean references in iambic pentameter.
Now comes These Paper Bullets!, Rolin Jones's Much Ado About Nothing rewrite, at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, set in 1964. Shakespeare idolaters will instantly recognize that year as the 400th anniversary of the Bard's Stratford-upon-Avon birth. It's also the year of The Beatles going global, which allows the quick-thinking Jones to blend Shakespeare's melancholy comedy with a send-up of the Fab Four, here called--with a blatant nod to our Will--The Quartos. Sure, this mop-topped quarter could just as easily have been blatantly dubbed The Folios.
Of course, blatant is as blatant does in this context, because it could quite possibly be that while many members of the Atlantic audience will understand what Jones is up to, many--those not so readily conversant with the source--won't.
They might not recognize that Quartos member Ben (Justin Kirk) is standing in for Much Ado's Benedick, Quarto member Claude (Bryan Fenkart) is standing in for Much Ado's Claudio and ex-Quarto member Don Best (Adam O'Byrne) is not only standing in for discarded Beatles drummer Pete Best but for Much Ado's Don John.
They may have no idea that fashion designer Bea (Nicole Parker) is substituting for Much Ado's Benedick-taunter Beatrice and that Bea's fave model Higgy (Ariana Venturi) is substituting for Claudio's beloved wife-to-be and eventually wronged Hero. Furthermore, those in-the-dark spectators may not realize that Scotland Yard fools Mr. Cake (Tony Manna), Mr. Crumpet (Christopher Geary) and Mr. Urges (Brad Heberlee) are subbing for Shakespeare's malapropping officer Dogberry and his bumbling sidekicks.
So the question arises as to whether the hectic spoof--with its several Billie Joe Armstrong Beatles pastiches inserted--will have much resonance for broader audiences. Originally commissioned by the Yale Repertory Theatre, it prompts the further question whether that resonance matters. Will These Paper Bullets! greatly entertain spectators who have no idea what Jones is actually up to. It also makes an observer who's in on the joke wonder whether getting what's going on can and will result in thoroughly satisfying amusement.
This reviewer will only speculate that the raucous goings-on might titillate some patrons, while baffling others. Some of those scratching their heads may have no notion that much of the dialog is lifted directly from Shakespeare and is not just pointlessly florid. Others of them will suspect that something's afoot they're not catching.
For one instance, there's a segment where a new Quartos elpee gets played backwards for a few measures. (Is it the one called "Rub My Bowl" named to conjure The Beatles's "Rubber Soul"?) How many auditors will recall that a while back some crazed Beatles fans believed when a stretch of "Abbey Road" was played backward, it announced, "Paul is dead"? When the Quartos ditty is played backwards, the audience is informed that "de Vere wrote them all." How many out there in auditorium-land will recognize this as a gag on the belief among Shakespeare watchers that Shakespeare didn't write the works ascribed to him but Edward, Lord de Vere did?
Is Jones being too clever by half, or is he just content to reach the spectators who are as well versed in Shakespeare and Beatles lore as he is? This reviewer will admit that matching Much Ado with the particulars of These Paper Bullets! was fun for a while. Sometime before act one ends,, however, Jones's striving too hard to follow the Much Ado ins-and-outs began to take a toll.
Furthermore, a few of the sequences stopped being laugh-provoking and become merely messily strained. Weathering the Scotland Yard trio was trying. There's also a busily roving BBC newswoman who got on the nerves--although not when she was covering Queen Elizabeth II (Geary again), who makes a rowdy appearance.
The Armstrong songs, which pretty much avoid sounding like the Green Day lead singer's works, pop up now and again as played by Kirk, Fenkart, James Barry (as Pedro, in for Ringo) and Lucas Papaelias (a Ringo lookalike but in for George Harrison). At no time are they any less or any more than serviceable. The notable exception is "Regretfully Yours," which ranks right up there with the long-ago break-out band's lengthy string of chart toppers.
This leads directly to the musical's possibly puzzling title. This may be only a bad guess, but it seems as if the paper bullets are intended to evoke the designations Top 40 charts use to indicate fast-climbing releases. They're known as "bullets," of course, and appear on, but do not pierce, paper. Indeed, the "A" in the These Paper Bullets! logo does resemble the printed indicators.
Now it's time for a shout-out to Jackson Gay, the production's director, and the success he's had with a cast that consistently makes the hot parts hotter and colder segments less chilly. In addition to the above-mentioned, they're Stephen DeRosa, Andrew Musselman, Greg Stuhr, Liz Wisan and Keira Naughton, who in her role as an all-purpose groupie bears a definite resemblance to Dusty Springfield.
These Paper Bullets! includes a multitude of locales, hardly the least of which is a bandstand (many different bandstands?) on which The Quartos make like 1960s rockers. Set designer Michael Yeargan puts it to frequent use and also employs, among numerous other things, a turntable and more than a few fringed lamp shades. Projections designer Nicholas Hussong enhances the look with Beatles-like footage, while costumer Jessica Ford, lighting designer Paul Whitaker and sound and incidental musical outfit Broken Chord take care of their assignments properly.
Over the four centuries between Shakespeare and us, he's been put to many uses, and this may be one of the weirdest. It cries out, "Love Me Do." Some may be able to. Others may not. They may simply conclude it's much ado about little.