by Samuel L. Leiter
Much Ado about Nothing, like every other Shakespeare play, has been subject to endless creative manipulation to wring something new from its romantic complications, especially the contentious love affair between Beatrice and Benedick. Most critics would call the play high comedy with farcical interludes (the Dogberry scenes), but few think of it as nonstop slapstick farce. That, unfortunately, is how it’s been reimagined by playwright Rolin Jones, with chaotic direction by Jackson Gay, under the title These Paper Bullets!, an egregiously over-the-top, raucous, and devastatingly unfunny “play with music” currently playing at Atlantic Theatre Company. It’s hard to believe it originated at Yale Repertory Theatre.
Jones places the action in London’s Swinging 60s—1964 to be precise—just when the Beatles returned in triumph from their famous American invasion. The idea is brilliant; the execution—not so much. Four of Shakespeare’s young men have been converted into the Liverpudlian-accented Quartos—Fab Four clones in skinny ties, tight suits with velvet collars, and mushroom haircuts. Their lead singer is Benedick—Ben (Justin Kirk), that is—complete with John Lennon’s nasality. Happily, their terrifically Beatles-like songs are by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong (American Idiot).
Ben’s female counterpart is Bea (Nicole Parker), Carnaby Street’s top Mod designer, replicating miniskirt guru Mary Quant down to her iconic bangs and Sassoon bob. Hero has become the Quaalude-popping, clueless, Twiggy-like model Higgy (Ariana Venturi). Claudio is Claude (Bryan Fenkart), the quartet’s Paul, who turns against Higgy when shown doctored photos of her in flagrante delicto, a machination carried out by the vengefully villainous Don Best (Adam O’Byrne)—Much Ado’s Don John—inspired by Pete Best, the Beatles’ pre-Ringo drummer. The other band members are Pedro (James Barry), the Ringo, and Balth (from the minor character, Balthasar; Lucas Papaelias), the George.
Costume designer Jessica Ford’s colorful, satirical take on go-go Mod fashions is the show’s most successful visual ingredient. Paul Whitaker’s lights are busy but can’t help Michael Yeargan’s clutzy set, despite its clever revolve resembling a vinyl record. The production itself is a clownish mishmash of juvenilia, performed with all the subtlety of the Three Stooges. Scads of action take place in the auditorium (with awkward bits of audience participation), and the dialogue is an uncomfortable hodgepodge of 60s Brit-speak and Bardic locutions.
Gay encourages her actors to mug mercilessly as if this were a dramatization of “Twist and Shout,” the pratfalls pile up like pancakes, girls’ panties fly like snowflakes, people wear lampshades on their heads, and Bea, in one of the plodding attempts at naughtiness, does a bit with a used condom she can’t dislodge from her finger. Yuck. Among all the overstuffed hams, only Greg Sturh’s Dogberry incarnation, Scotland Yard’s fatuously incompetent Douglas Berry, made me laugh (once, I think). These Paper Bullets! is more like an amateur version of a Richard Lester Beatles’ movie than of a great Shakespearean comedy.
Although Armstrong’s nine songs aren’t integrated into the text but are set pieces performed by the Quartos, it’s only when they’re sung that the show proves at all satisfying. West Side Story remains the benchmark transformation of Shakespeare into a contemporary musical, and Something Rotten! is a much funnier spoof of Shakespearean pretensions. As for These Paper Bullets!, well, add one more bad quarto to the list.
These Paper Bullets!
Atlantic Theatre Company
336 West 20th Street, NYC
Through January 10, 2016
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).