This fall, Atlantic Theatre Company presented “a modish ripoff”of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Jackson Gay, entitled These Paper Bullets! and set, not surprisingly, in 1960s London. The book of this musical adaptation was written by Rolin Jones, and the music written by Green Day frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong. The play originated at Yale Rep, and came to Atlantic via the Geffen Playhouse. The piece draws equally from the origins of The Beatles, creating the Duke’s court around a superstar young band, the Quartos (previously known as the Oxfordians), whose previously fired drummer, Don Best, vows revenge by sabotaging the happiness of bass player, Claude. The women, Bea, and Higgie–a fashion designer and supermodel–are ensconced in Higgie’s father’s exclusive hotel, The Messina.
Atlantic’s adaptation blends English vernacular with Shakespeare’s language, in a fairly dramaturgically faithful representation of Much Ado About Nothing. Taking a cue, perhaps, from Joss Whedon, Jones and Armstrong’s Much Ado is fueled by an ongoing consumption of drugs and booze that keeps Hero/Higgie dazed and confused throughout the play. In more careful hands, this might have been powerful, but the show’s often-misplaced slapstick bled much of the danger out of a potentially devastating scene in which, high on Quaaludes, Higgie could barely comprehend the extent of her humiliation. In spite of its modern context, my biggest complaint about this production was its unwillingness to more aggressively adapt its source material. The play relied heavily on Shakespeare’s own text, and most of the deviations served to house dirty jokes or references 1960s culture. The result was a choppy, disjointed mix of Shakespeare and the modern text, which was undermined by heavy slapstick that often missed the mark. Often, it seemed that the gimmick got ahead of the text, and Much Ado’s unique musicality was lost in the production’s too-heavy backbeat.
Scouse accents aside (and the less said about those, the better), the ensemble company gave an enthusiastic and polished performances that would have shone in a “straight” production, set in the swinging sixties. Biased by my own love for the era, I refuse to find fault with the original music, nor the performances. Justin Kirk and Nicole Parker’s Benedick and Beatrice were terrifically well-matched, and Kiera Naughton’s Ulcie/Margaret, created a clueless and high swinger that would make the ladies from Absolutely Fabulous proud.