These Paper Bullets

Dany Margolies Reviews - Theater
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Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of enjoying this play?

At least subtitling this work “a modish ripoff” gives fair warning about playwright Rolin Jones’s script. It’s a rip-off, indeed, of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, in which the thirtysomething former flames Beatrice and Benedick forswear love, while the younger Hero and Claudio’s emotions catch fire before our eyes.

 

In Shakespeare’s original, a group of soldiers returns from war. Jones sets his play in London’s swinging ’60s, where a quartet of rock musicians, the Quartos, returns from its world tour, a different kind of invasion. These mop-tops are Claude, the cute one (Damon Daunno); Balth, the quiet one (Lucas Papaelias); Pedro, the perky drummer (James Barry); and of course Ben (Justin Kirk).

 

Bea (Nicole Parker) is a fashion designer magnate, very Mary Quant, whose clothes are on every body and whose face is on every building. Her favorite model, and of course cousin, is the Twiggy-like Higgy (Ariana Venturi). Higgy lives in the penthouse of her father, Leo’s (Nick Ullett), swanky hotel, the Messina. Like the band, Higgy has hangers-on, notably Ulcie (Keira Naughton) and Frida (Kate Blumberg), as much drunken revelers as any men in any Shakespeare play.

Bea and Ben continue their battle of the quips, while Higgy and Claude overcome lies and drugs-and-alcohol hazes to reach the altar. The play needs Shakespeare’s villain: Don Pedro’s evil brother Don John. Here, however, he’s the band’s clumsily fired original drummer, out for revenge and named, in one of the show’s best jokes that merge Shakespeare and the Beatles, Don Best (Adam O’Byrne).

The goings-on with the turned-on generation are spied on by Scotland Yard. Heading the case is the particularly inept Mr. Berry (Dogberry in Shakespeare), played by the particularly adept Greg Stuhr, whose onstage shenanigans are still inducing giggles in at least one audience member. Berry’s “watchmen” are Mr. Cake (Tony Manna) and Mr. Urges (Brad Heberlee, later doubling as the friar).

For those who know Shakespeare’s play, the distraction one must o’erleap is the compulsion to compare the dialogue here with that of the original. For those who don’t know the original, there might be the urge to wonder why mods speak in Shakespearean dialogue.

Jackson Gay’s direction provides its own interesting twist. She places the action on a turntable, which not only symbolizes the mega recording careers of the musicians but also allows swift scene changes and very filmic movement within scenes (immense praise to those who keep the turntable moving in the right direction at the right time). But stagehands can be seen onstage, moving furniture and wiping up savaged wedding cake. As if to acknowledge that these versions of Bunraku puppeteers are indeed there, they and the ushers flock to and on the stage during the final wedding scene.

The Quartos provide musical interludes. Billie Joe Armstrong, front man of the pop-punk band Green Day, has written short, sweet songs very much evoking those of the real fab four. Only in his last song, “Regretfully Yours,” do chords and rhythms hint at Green Day’s “American Idiot.”

Remarkably, the actors playing the Quartos play their instruments live onstage. While they don’t have quite the musicianship of three of their models—half the audience is surely better drummers than the iconic original was—their work satisfies the production’s musical needs. Any better, and the musicianship could be a distraction.

Briefly distracting, but happily so, are the gorgeous mod costumes, by Jessica Ford. They include brightly hued and frolickingly patterned mini-dresses for the women, accessorized by colored fishnets and go-go boots, and slim-line suits for the band.

But this highly skilled, highly schooled cast doesn’t need costuming to create a feel that is Shakespearean and swinging. Iambs come crisply from their mouths—witness the ample spit on each plosive. Emotions, at least for the characters with emotions, come ragingly from their souls. Pratfalls, commedia gags, and frug-like dance moves overflow their bodies.

The exception to the emotionally available acting may be the handsome but here bland Kirk, as Ben. Dry, droll, and introvertedly brilliant may be exciting qualities in a rock god the likes of John Lennon, but they don’t make for an interesting protagonist in a play.

With the inclusion of videotaping of the audience, rebroadcast on Jumbotrons, there’s a bit of fun at the expense of BBC reporters, particularly one (Blumberg again), the extent of whose hat collection matches that of Queen Elizabeth II—who also attends the wedding and even dances at it (Christopher Geary).

One last character and actor must be mentioned. Who the heck is Boris? He’s the Borachio character, played with endless hilarity by Rod McLachlan. Given a Russian name perhaps to add another layer to the rip-roaring interrogation scene at Scotland Yard, Boris is the mechanism by which Claude and Higgy are separated, then reconciled, though Higgy and Bea plan to remain staunch feminists. Post-1950s at last, they’re the strong women Shakespeare expected them to be.

These Paper Bullets! continues in Westwood at the Geffen Playhouse through Oct. 18. Geffen Playhouse is located at 10886 Le Conte Ave. Evening performances are on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays at 3pm and Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations, call (310) 208-5454. For online ticketing and further information, www.geffenplayhouse.com.