Originally I intended to post only about plays I’d read as I completed them. But last night I saw These! Paper! Bullets!, a new romp at the Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven based on Much Ado About Nothing, and while it’s out of alphabetical order (and I’m sure this troubles only me), it seemed post-worthy. Rolin Jones wrote the play, and Billie Joe Armstrong (of Green Day) the music. In the New York Times today, Rob Weinert-Kendt calls it “the latest in a recent wave of pop-Shakespeare adaptations that have updated the settings and found music to match.”
And there’s the rub… As I’ve admitted my bias against the comedies (which I’m trying to overcome), I’ll also readily confess a lack of fondness for adaptations. I suppose I’m a purist and I feel strongly that Shakespeare got it right, and there’s not a great need to keep setting the plays in random, far-flung locales and eras to make a point about their timelessness and universality.
But I like the Beatles nearly as much as I like Shakespeare, so Making Claudio and Benedick Beatles, and Hero and Beatrice their love interests on the eve of the British Invasion intrigued and amused me. Here, the villain Don John is Don Best- the original, shunned and hurt Quartos drummer, (as in Pete Best – the original, shunned, and hurt Beatles drummer). Very clever – as are many of the set, costume and plot features. The climax takes place during a press conference for the Quartos’ new album “Rub My Bowl,” the cover photo of which mimics that of the iconic Rubber Soul.
I really wanted to like the play, and really did like parts of it. Billie Joe did a terrific job with the music. He channeled without ripping off the Beatles. Each song evoked them nostalgically and supported the action poignantly. The group did a great job with the live, Ed Sullivan Show-style performances. I’d buy the soundtrack.
But it didn’t quite gel. It didn’t quite work. Much of the dialog came right from the play, and in the context of the 60s setting and mood, complete with on-again-off-again Liverpudlian accents, was difficult to decipher and hence confusing and dissonant. I felt like I always feel at the end of these adaptations; I wish they would just be one thing or the other. Either do the play, or take the essence of the play, and make it your own (West Side Story). But these hybrids always seem to try too hard to cram too much in and fall short. This did as well.
The title comes from Act II, scene iii of Much Ado: Benedick asks “Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor?” It’s sort of the Shakespearean version of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” But the words really don’t do the harm here. It’s the malicious deceipt that Don Best perpetrates, and the mistrustful, inconsiderate, and hurtful way that Claude confronts the perceived betrayal (not to mention the wanton sex and drugs and rock n’ roll portrayed on stage!). The words, in fact, do anything but harm. Shakespeare’s alone work wonders, and a full-on commitment to 60s-style, Fab Four vernacular would have made this play sing much more than it actually did.