In Rolin Jones’ re-do of Much Ado, the soldier buddies have become a Beatles-like rock band called The Quartos, the first of many Shakespearean references. Continuing the parallels: Leonato (the always terrific Stephen DeRosa) has become Leo Messina whose Hotel Messina takes the place of the Italian town, Messina; his daughters, Bea (Nicole Parker) and Higgy (Ariana Venturi) are the Beatrice and Hero characters, whose romantic adventures with Ben (Justin Kirk) and Claude (Bryan Fenkart) (stand-ins for Benedick and Claudio), are the strength-testing plot-churners here as in the original.
Bea is a popular fashion designer who trades quips with Ben, the lead singer of The Quartos while Higgy is a model whose passionate romance with another Quartos member, Claude, seems to end badly when Don Best (i.e. the wicked Don John) (Adam O’Byrne) sabotages their wedding at the last minute. Don Best’s animus stems from being kicked out of the band only to be replaced by his brother Pedro (James Barry). As the road manager of The Quartos, Best is witness to and somewhat the reason for the band’s success, frustratingly, without his onstage presence. (Here, Beatles’ mavens will see a reference to Pete Best, the drummer who was replaced by Ringo Starr.) Best’s machinations succeed in making Higgy appear to be unfaithful, but, as in the original, the nefarious plot is revealed in the nick of time for a happy ending. And, of course, Bea and Ben wind up a loving couple, forever trading barbs and witticisms that cannot hide their true feelings.
Much Ado’s subplots are similarly touched upon with all the characters, suitably updated, such as Dogberry and Verges becoming the bumbling Scotland Yard detectives, Mr. Berry and Mr. Urges (Greg Stuhr and Brad Herberlee, respectively). Certainly, there is much wit in Jones’ writing, some of it a bit too obvious.
The Quartos provide the perfect excuse—as if any were needed—for some brilliant, pastiche Beatles’ songs by Green Day’s front man Billie Joe Armstrong, most of which could comfortably exist outside Bullets.
Ironically, the Liverpudlian dialect (coached by Stephen Gabis) is actually more difficult to understand than Shakespearean English. The first act is particularly demanding on the audience’s attention span with its manic plot turns coming and going at warp speed, the audience having to not only decipher what is going on, but also having to figure out the Shakespearean allusions, while translating the accents, giggling at the songs, and also working at empathizing with the characters. Whew! Nevertheless, it is definitely worth staying for the second act where the speed is not so hectic and the denouement is more than satisfying.
The right-on costumes of Jessica Ford (tight, narrow-lapel suits, mini-skirts, bright colors), the evocative sets by Michael Yeargan (including the stage as a giant turntable) and the incisive lighting design of Paul Whitaker serve Bullets perfectly. The choreography by Kevin Williamson also illuminates the period.
Jackson Gay, the director, might have made the Act One complications more comprehensible by slowing things down, but he has gotten brilliant work from the entire cast, particularly the singers in the band. (The orchestrations are by Tom Kitt and musical direction by Julie McBride.)
These Paper Bullets! is lots of fun for those with a bit of patience to wade through the modern gloss to get to the Shakespearean soul of the story. Patience is rewarded with a different take on the original and a stage-full of fine performers who deliver the story with unflagging energy and panache.
These Paper Bullets! (through January 10, 2016)
Yale Repertory Theatre Production
Linda Gross Theater at the Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.AtlanticTheater.org
Running time: two hours 45 minutes, including one intermission