Yeah, yeah, verily yeah!
These Paper Bullets! is a fab, gear, madcap, majestic play with music.
And it’s all New Haven’s, the way Shakespeare was all Avon’s and The Beatles were all Liverpool’s.
The show’s a triumph for what’s known far and wide as “the Yale network.” Thing is, that network usually gets accessed most fruitfully in other cities. This is a rare opportunity of seeing its wonders in action back at the alma mater.
The network works like this: The Yale School of Drama is that rare graduate theater program that offers training for virtually every job the modern professional stage world requires. Theaters have learned that if you hire a Yalie director, the director inevitably can bring along a good dramaturg, or designer, or a dozen actors. Theater’s a collaborative art; find people who already enjoy working together, who learned their craft in the same place, and there’s a lot less worry.
And with a show that has more roles, more songs, more locations, more reason and more romance than Shakespeare’s original, you don’t want to worry. You don’t want to see the strain. You just want to have a good time.
Even with the immense challenges—a live rock score played by the lead actors, massive sets that could easily stall or get stuck, tricky physical shtick (like vomiting, or dropping a royal crown off the auditorium balcony) and, um, rewriting Shakespeare—this is a stress-free, sit-back-and-savor, sustained burst of beat-filled silliness.
The actors—the vast majority of them Yale School of Drama grads, as are playwright Rolin Jones and director Jackson Gay—work together like a family circus act, keeping you amused and dazzled yet safe in the knowledge that nobody’s really going to get hurt.
But doesn’t someone pretend to die in Much Ado About Nothing, the Shakespeare show on which These Paper Bullets! is basing its so-called “modish rip-off”? And doesn’t somebody insist he’s going to kill someone who’s just stopped being one of his closest friends?
Not in this version, which softens some of the bard’s crueler humor while adding some extremes of its own.
Rolin Jones’ adaptation doesn’t simply substitute 1960s British pop culture for 1590s Messinian port culture. It makes fresh observations based on those transpositions. Better, it creates new jokes that fit this expansive Swinging London mood.
Best yet, when it has nothing to add, Jones is wise enough to let Shakespeare be Shakespeare. Big chunks of the play are retained from the original text. The cast is versatile and engaging enough that it’s a pleasure to hear the language shift from Carnaby Street slang to Shakespearean oaths, from Mersey pop and Irish drinking songs to “hey nonny nonny,” from unabashed sex talk to a different era of unabashed sex talk.
One of Much Ado About Nothing’s purported problems is that two of its supporting characters, the comically combustible Beatrice and Benedick, invariably upstage the main romance between Claudio and Hero. That’s where These Paper Bullets!‘s Beatlization of Shakespeare proves brilliant. When you accept that this a pop band of complementary personalities—“smart one,” “cute one,” et al—then the plots and subplots don’t seem imbalanced. They seem harmonic.
Here Benedick is shortened to “Ben,” and is played by David Wilson Barnes—one of the few in the cast who didn’t attend Yale; he’s been in New Haven before, though, with a couple of small roles in Tracy Scott Wilson’s The Story at Long Wharf in 2004. There are a number of remarkable performances in this show: Steven DeRosa’s delicious vamping as the happy father of a presumed bride-to-be; Adam O’Byrne as the seething scurrilous villain of the piece, here called Don Best; Greg Stuhr with his Will Ferrell-level muggery as this play’s version Shakespeare’s incompetent constable Dogberry. But Barnes’ is on a plateau of its own, layered and dramatic and consistently comic.
These Paper Bullets! doesn’t literally correspond the likenesses and character traits of the four Beatles with those of the four Quartos. Lead guitarist Balth (Shakespeare’s Balthasar, with lots more to do) is played by Lucas Papaelias as quiet, innocently out-of-it cross between George and Ringo, while Pedro (Don Pedro in the original) behaves more like, say, Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five than any identifiable Beatle. Yet Barnes’ Ben is indisputably John Lennon. He has the cleverness, the cantankerousness, the caustic craziness. He’s also one of the few performers who gets to address the audience directly, and he does so in a way that makes him seem both seductive and sensitive.
Barnes is well-matched by Jeanine Serralles, who had a role in another famous Beatle-based culture riff, Julie Taymor’s film Across the Universe, and endured a different mid-20th-century music community as the title character’s unsympathetic sister in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewen Davis. Beatrice is reimagined in These Paper Bullets! as a successful, creative modern businesswoman, modeled on fashion designer Mary Quant. It was smart of Rolin Jones to give Beatrice a career that’s separate from the music world the Quartos inhabit. Serralles brings a self-made forthrightness to the role. She’s also a gifted clown, rolling on the floor with a horror of an old-world wedding dress, and ravaging Benedick against a gigantic wedding cake.
Director Jackson Gay deftly pivots the staging and neatly alters perspectives so the audience can grasp who the heroes and victims are in each scene. (The character actually named Hero, the young woman betrothed the crusading bandmember Claudio, is here renamed “Higgy” and played by Ariana Venturi as having an over-the-top vulnerability, an addictive personality and a heart of gold.) Gay and Jones—YSD classmates from 15 or so years ago—share the impulse to keep things brisk and mirthful while not smoothing over the uncomfortable bits. When an ideal relationship is rent asunder by skullduggery, they show you the hurt. But you’re also assured of a wild party of a happy ending.
These grand emotions are ably underscored by spot-on Beatles pastiches composed by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. The songs “hath such a charm to make bad good, and good provoke to harm,” as Shakespeare put it in a different play. They sweeten and hasten and enliven and uplift the whole enterprise. They also serve the plot, exactly as music does in Much Ado About Nothing and beyond. A key scene late in the play has been revised as a “Hey Jude”-type ballad. What in the original is an over-the-top call for murder becomes a “break up the band” moment, which leads to a joyous reunion song.
Don’t think these are spoilers. If you know Shakespeare’s play, then nothing’s spoiled. If you don’t, there are way too many twists and turns in this frantic large-cast fracas for any number of plot points to detour your enjoyment. This is a lot of talented people—people who know each other, who know Yale, who know the peculiarities of Yale Rep audiences—making the most of an extraordinary opportunity. The mix all the glamour and madness and merriment of two great historical ages into one explosive piece of cosmic pop performance.
“It’s a giddy thing,” (Shakespeare said that first), “and this is my conclusion.”
These Paper Bullets! rocks through April 5 at the Yale University Theater, 222 York St. (203) 432-1234.