Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
And then there are other times, wondrous, magical times when you discoveralthough you hadn't anticipated itthat you are the show's target audience. You get every joke, you smile at every reference, and your toes go a-tapping at each song. Ten minutes in, and you start making a mental list of which of your friends you're sending to see this show. After all, it was made for you.
And it is as a satisfied audience member that I happily report These Paper Bullets! fell solidly in that latter category for me. But, as a reviewer, I feel obligated to report that the target audience for this piece isn't very broadand, honestly, I probably liked it more than it deserved.
So, who, exactly is These Paper Bullets! for? Well, first, you have to have a something of a love/hate relationship with Much Ado About Nothing. You have to know it well enough to recognize when its lines are cleverly modified; and you have to adore the physical comedy that is traditionally played in the gulling scenes. But you also have to recognize the play's many flaws, like the fact that, when you get right down to it, the title is painfully accurate. (Don John's villainous plot can be easily undone with a word from Hero's lady-in-waiting.) Or that Claudio and Hero fall desperately in love on, basically, first sight.
And you also have to dig the Beatles. These Paper Bullets! is described as "a modish ripoff" of Much Ado About Nothing, but that isn't entirely right. It's a ripoff of Much Ado set in the universe of the Quartosa quartet so suspiciously like the Beatles, their album covers look exactly alike, although the titles are somewhat different ("Help!" becomes "Zounds!"). Fairly early in the show you are introduced to the band and its history. You learn that the band's drummer is the newest addition to the groupPedro joined as a replacement for his brother, Don Best. And that, right there, is your test. If that bit of writing strikes you as cleverboth for the Pete Best reference and for how it actually gives the Don John character a motive for vengeancego buy your ticket for These Paper Bullets! right now.
From there, the show is pretty much a fun (and occasionally filthy) romp through Much Ado About Nothing, set in the sexy sixties. Writer Rolin Jones has adapted the play to retain just enough of the Shakespeare, and to also gently mock (and occasionally improve upon) the bits of Much Ado that never quite make sense. (A personal favorite is when Don Best's plan to convince Claude that Pedro wooed Hero for himself is rightly called out as "not exactly a diabolical plot.")
Benedick (Ben) is now the band's lead singer; Beatrice (Bea) is a fashion designer who is also his former squeeze. Claudio and Hero become Claude (plays in the band) and Higgy (Bea's model). (Their love-at-first-sight moment is tidily explained by vodka and quaaludes.) And Don Best, who has been demoted to roadie, is there to interfere with it all. And if that isn't enough, Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong composed a crop of Quartos tunes that are somehow both amusingly Beatles-esque and also pretty good melodies in their own right.
The cast is led by Justin Kirk and Nicole Parker as Ben and Bea. Both turn in strong performancesKirk is heavy on the adorable Beatleness of it all, while Parker is tops at physical comedy. Jones has given Bea some particularly good writingexploring both the wisdom and vulnerability behind Bea's sharp-tongued renouncing of marriageand Parker is up to the challenge, giving us the truth behind the laughs. Points also to Greg Stuhr, whose 1964 Dogberry is right out of the Maxwell Smart playbook, as well it should be.
Jackson Gay's direction tries to keep things moving quickly, but it sometimes gets bogged down. (There is, for example, way too much reliance on the stage's turntable, which actually seems to slow the action rather than keep it moving.) And attempts to involve the audience in the wedding scene come off as a bit forced. I almost want to recommend a consultation with L.A.'s Troubadour Theatre Company, which has been in the wacky, music-infused Shakespeare business for some years now, and knows how to get the energy flowing more organically from the piece. But these little missteps didn't stop me from smiling from ear-to-ear throughout These Paper Bullets!, which is basically just all about having a good time.
These Paper Bullets!, at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through October 18, 2015. For tickets and information, see www.geffenplayhouse.com.
Geffen Playhouse in association with Atlantic Theater Company presents the Yale Repertory Theatre production of a modish ripoff of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, These Paper Bullets! Written by Rolin Jones; Songs by Billie Joe Armstrong. Scenic Design by Michael Yeargan; Costume Design by Jessia Ford; Lighting Design by Paul Whitaker; Sound Design & Incidental Music by Broken Chord; Projection Design by Nicholas Hussong; Orchestrator & Arranger Tom Kitt; Music Director Julie McBride; Choreographer Kevin Williamson; Fight Choreographer Mike Rossmy; Dramaturg Catherine Sheehy; Production Stage MAnager Rob Chikar; ASsistant Stage Manager Bree Sherry; Casting by Tara Rubin Casing, Phyllis Schuringa, CSA and Telsey + Company. Directed by Jackson Gay.