Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

The Bard Goes Mod in “These Paper Bullets” (and it’s terrific)

The Quartos - a twist on the Fab Four - take center stage in

The Quartos – a twist on the Fab Four – take center stage in “These Paper Bullets” [photo: Michael Lamont]

Once upon a time it was considered necessary to place the works of William Shakespeare in a kind of historical isolation. The insistence on Elizabethan clothes, language, and setting led increasingly to an emotional and cultural distance which mothballed the relevance of the works. This barrier was broken in the 20th Century as the plays began to be staged in various contemporary frameworks, from Orson Welles’ placing of “Julius Caesar” in Mussolini’s Italy to, among others, the many wildly creative ventures of the Royal Shakespeare Company from the 1960s on. Now, “These Paper Bullets” at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood takes the Bard one more lively step toward the contemporary.

Subtitled “A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing'”. this new musical has a script by Rolin Jones heavily based on the original play’s lines and characters, reset in the London of 1964. What were once members of a victorious army have become, essentially, The Beatles (renamed The Quartos). The villain is no longer the victorious duke’s dark brother, defeated in battle, but an only slightly disguised Pete Best – the drummer the Beatles let go before they reached fame. And the music – deeply evocative of the Beatle’s own style (including a few opening riffs ripped directly from their hits) – is by talented Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong.

The result actually may approach some sense of what Elizabethan audiences saw when they went to one of Shakespeare’s comedies: great silliness within a cultural framework they would easily recognize. Most certainly “These Paper Bullets” proves very funny, appropriately over the top, and absolutely charming.

As in the original, there are two intertwined storylines which frame the piece. The first follows Claude, one of the band members, and his sudden yet abiding passion for Higgy – hip fashion model and daughter of the wealthy owner of the posh hotel in which the band is staying. The second follows Ben, somewhat older than his bandmate Claude, and deeply disdainful of the concept of love, especially as it relates to his former girlfriend, top end fashion designer Bea. Surrounding these two threads is a send-up of government investigations led by the pedantic Mr. Berry and his inept group of undercover agents.

Justin Kirk makes Ben a solid combination of grounded but goofy rocker and closet romantic. Nicole Parker creates, in Bea, a determinedly unromantic businesswoman gradually giving way to greater stereotype. Damon Daunno’s Claude makes being head over heels with a girl you’ve just met seem absolutely logical, while Ariana Venturi makes Higgy a truly hot mess – which has its own comic effect upon the piece.

Kirk and Daunno, along with bandmates James Barry and Lucas Papaelias, create the Beatle-like Quartos, playing their own instruments and singing with the gusto and even with head gestures reminiscent of the Fab Four. Greg Stuhr gives the pompous government official appropriate snotty idiocy, while his minions – Mr. Urges and Mr. Cake (Brad Heberlee and Tony Manna) provide extra comic relief.

It is director Jackson Gay who has turned this into such a silly, fast-paced, unified whole. From the development of a modular set (realized delightfully by designer Michael Yeargan) to Jessica Ford’s fashion-plate costumes and Paul Whitaker’s era-evoking lighting (the swirls of those ubiquitous daisies, as created by Nicholas Hussong, for example) the thing looks and feels right. The high (literally) living of the era – truly the foundation of the sex, drugs and rock and roll movement – gives everything a slightly surreal edge, while Gay’s use of the entire theatrical space continually connects the audience with the action onstage in ways Thornton Wilder would admire.

Simply put, this thing works. To hear, throughout, Shakespeare’s take on his characters as it bumps up against modern references works better than you’d think. And the references to other Shakespeare plays, modern issues and even the stagehands adds to the general silliness. Lighthearted, and funny, it also shows off the talent of Armstrong, who has found the tonalities and structures of Beatles tunes and melded them with some of his own signature sensibilities to create charming new songs that unify the show’s various elements and create the flow from scene to scene. This one is most definitely worth seeing, though it’s not a show for kids.

What: “These Paper Bullets” When: Ongoing – 8 p.m Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Westwood How Much: $43 – $82 Info: (310) 208-5454 or http://www.geffenplayhouse.com

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