I’ve really been looking forward to “These Paper Bullets” at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, which opened last night. This mash-up of “Much Ado About Nothing,” Shakespeare’s original “rom-com” (romantic comedy) with a Beatles-era band features music by Grammy Award-winner Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and a plot line with lots of plotting.
In an email interview with playwright Rolin Jones, I asked how this particular Shakespearean work translates into a contemporary staging.
“The Benedick-Beatrice love story is some pretty damn solid scribbling,” Jones replied. “They are the Ur Rom-Com couple. When director Jackson Gay and I started conceiving of this version, we knew well to get outta the way of those two and try to aggressively attack the other characters and plotting.
“We re-read ‘Much Ado,’ noticed how often music was used as a metaphor for love and came up with the goofy idea of turning the four soldiers (returning from war) into four lads from Liverpool (returning from a tour) and then tried to figure out if that would hold up for the entirety of the play.
“The time period and the Beatles mythology really helped solve a lot of the ‘problems’ of the play. For the ‘villain’ in ‘Much Ado’ we took the story of Pete Best being replaced by Ringo Starr and grafted that onto the play. And Beatlemania happily coincided with this fantastic explosion of British fashion. So we modeled Beatrice after Mary Quant and that eventually led us to figuring out a more palatable solution to the play that is basically driven by the women.
“Our secret weapon in all of this? A lot of help from Mr. Ketel One and Mrs. Maker’s Mark in a few nights of dive bars in New York City.”
The plot of “Much Ado” involves the return of four soldiers from war, a pending wedding, the dastardly plot to try to stop it and another to trick the warring Beatrice and Benedick into confessing their love for one another.
Benedick doesn’t believe in marriage, and he engages in a war of wits with Beatrice. The play’s title “These Paper Bullets,” says Jones, is “Shakespeare’s metaphor for all the sharp barbs that are thrown back and forth between Benedick and Beatrice (here re-named Ben and Bea), which seem to dominate the play, not merely for wit’s sake but for armoring one’s self to deflect the risks of truly loving someone.”
In this play, the musicians are cutting an album during their weeklong stay in London. Hence the music by Billie Joe Armstrong – Jones is writing the screenplay of Green Day’s popular musical, “American Idiot,” and invited Armstrong into the mix.
“We use music a lot like it was used in the Beatles movie, ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’ The lyrics of the songs reflect a lot of the ideas concerning love that Shakespeare included in ‘Much Ado’‚Ä¶ the crazy state of mind it puts you in, the potential for transformation, etc., but Billie Joe managed to honor the spirit of Lennon and McCartney too.
“In an era dominated by processed pop music, he’s one of the last true remaining rock stars in the world. But he’s also an encyclopedia of 20th/21st Century music, a real music nerd. Strip down the Beatles, strip down Green Day to the bare bones, the chords, the vocal lines, and you’ll find a lot of shared DNA. The songs are ridiculously good.”
Another connection is that Jones wrote for the Showtime series, “Weeds,” which featured actor Justin Kirk in a leading role. Kirk plays Ben in “These Paper Bullets.” Jones told me, “I was lucky enough to write for Justin for four years on the staff of ‘Weeds’ and he was the first fella I thought about when I sat down to write this. He’s an actor of immense charm and generosity. He’s enormously playful with language and can turn the dumbest set-up into something quite moving in a heartbeat.”
“These Paper Bullets” runs at the Geffen through Oct. 18 and moves to New York thereafter. Visit www.geffenplayhouse.com for details.
Last week I attended the opening of the much-anticipated “The Object Lesson” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. The entire theatre has been reconfigured into a massive storage space, with boxes from floor to ceiling and spread all around. Even the seats are boxes, reinforced for safety. There’s a small clearing in the center of what would be the stage if it hadn’t been removed.
Audience members enter, poke around the boxes, find toys, board games, sound makers, masks, hats and more to play with before the show begins. Soon Geoff Sobelle, the performer, enters and drags over a large box, tearing off the tape to pull out a chair, another to unroll a carpet, a lamp, a side table and an old phone. Then he jumps into another box and emerges in a jacket.
He records himself and then plays that conversation back through the phone as an interactive conversation with himself. Later an audience member is recruited to participate in a romantic dinner that goes crazily awry.
The idea behind “The Object Lesson” is to connect objects to memories and the passage of time. It originated at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and most likely was performed in a smaller space. By comparison, the Douglas feels cavernous, and the intimacy is missing along with much of the point of the piece.
I wanted this to be a more meaningful experience. There’s a story arc, and a twist at the end, but the final act of “conjuring” goes on too long. It’s a theatre piece that hasn’t achieved its mission, in this reviewer’s opinion.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various publications.
Photo credit: Michael Lamont