What if Benedick and his pals from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing were actually the Beatles, and Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day wrote all their music? That’s the question posed by These Paper Bullets, the new musical now playing at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
Benedick (now Ben, played by Justin Kirk) is in a popular band called the Quartos, and they’re massively successful, with a rise to fame similar to that of the Beatles. He used to date Bea (Nicole Parker), a fashion designer whose favourite model is her cousin, Higgy (aka Hero, played by Ariana Venturi). Higgy and Claude (Damon Daunno) meet at a party, and are instantly smitten, prompting Ben and Bea’s friends to set the bickering duo up as a couple. Unfortunately, Kirk’s Ben and Parker’s Bea don’t have much chemistry, and since their relationship is so central to the show, it puts a damper on the experience as a whole.
Changing the setting isn’t a new fad when it comes to staging Shakespeare, but this production doesn’t just transport the story to London in the 1960s—playwright Rolin Jones has also modified the Bard’s script, clarifying the mod concept for this staging, and adding a few era-specific jokes (Hero is now hooked on Quaaludes, and Balth (Lucas Papaelias), a George Harrison type, wanders around with a sitar).
Unfortunately, the new dialogue doesn’t really work, since it’s slapped together with bits and pieces of Shakespeare’s original text. Mostly, the script additions feel forced, and the topical references are a tad heavy-handed, while the constant switching between contemporary prose and iambic pentameter makes the play difficult to follow at times.The sound design, by Broken Chord, further frustrates the show’s comprehensibility, with large chunks of dialogue and lyrics lost amid the actors’ uneven accents and the lack of microphones.Armstrong’s music is good, but there’s not quite enough of it, just a few bits of songs here and there, all performed by the Quarto in the world of the show (i.e. there are no songs that function as inner monologues).
It seems director Jackson Gay and the creative team are trying to do for Much Ado what One Man, Two Guvnors did for A Servant of Two Masters—bring the show into the twenty first century by evoking the 1960s. But These Paper Bullets doesn’t live up to the precedent set by Much Ado About Nothing or One Man, Two Guvnors, which are both stories that stand well on their own.
These Paper Bullets is playing The Geffen Playhouse until 18 October. For more information and tickets, see GeffenPlayhouse.com. Photo by Michael Lamont.