Playwright Rolin Jones and director Jackson Gay would agree with most theater professionals that Shakespeare reigns as boss among dramatists of all time. And though the Bard, like the Colosseum and The Louvre museum, is tops, neither Jones nor Gay feel that he deserves a free pass on the stickier issues in some of his plays. Their latest collaboration, “These Paper Bullets!,” is the result of their desire to fix the flaws in “Much Ado About Nothing.”
“These Paper Bullets!,” which makes its world premiere Friday through April 5 at Yale Repertory’s University Theatre, is baldly dubbed a “a modish ripoff” of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” adapted by Jones, with songs by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, and directed by Gay. Its modish-ness, if you will, is due to the triumvirate’s cheeky choice of taking Shakespeare’s four bachelor soldiers returning from battle to 16th century Messina, Italy, and transporting them to 1960s London, to become the wildly triumphant rock ‘n’ rollers The Quartos, whose resemblance to The Beatles is purely intentional.
“‘Much Ado’ is this weird play,” said Jones before a recent rehearsal. “I mean, it’s completely funny and then it’s completely not. Super dark and quite uneven. We wanted to make it a comedy, first and foremost.”
Jones and Gay, who first collaborated together for Yale Rep’s 2004 production of “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” find some of Shakespeare’s plotting and character motivation unacceptable to contemporary sensibilities. When the villainous Don John and his flunkies Borachio and Conrad, for instance, smear the virginal Hero’s good name on the day she’s to wed the gullible Claudio, everyone involved buys into the subterfuge despite the “very flimsy evidence,” as Jones puts it.
“Hero doesn’t say a word against these tricksters,” Jones said. “She’s just an agreeable person. Dad says, ‘You whore! You should die.’ Then later he says, ‘Ah, you’re still a virgin — I love you!’ What can you do about that? So we chucked that right out the window.”
“It had to do with the roles and motivations of the female characters not speaking,” said Gay, “and being accused of something publicly and then finding out it’s not true and everyone’s like, ‘OK, you didn’t sleep around.’ And the two women not having enough power over their lives and their bodies.”
Hence the move to he 60s, when “Everybody was shagging everybody,” as Jones said. Hero becomes Higgy, a super model inspired by Twiggy, and her attendants, Ursula and Margaret, are now “trash bag girls,” he said. Beatrice, Hero’s quick-witted and silver-tongued bachelorette cousin who spars with Claudio’s pal, Benedick, now reigns a queen of the fashion world.
“We made (the women) successful and gave them options similar to our character Ben,” Gay said. “They have everything people shoot for in terms of money and power and still have something missing in terms of loneliness or some existential thing that’s still not fulfilled.”
As for the comic relief, Dogberry, Verges and The Watch are officers of Scotland Yard, “investigating the moral corruption of our youth,” Jones said. “So they go undercover throughout the whole play.”
Jones said that the seed of his idea to Beatles-ize the play was likely sown while watching Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film, “when they’re all sitting there on the estate lollygagging and someone says, ‘Hey, look-they’re coming!’ Then everyone gets prepared. I thought, it’s like The Beatles are coming.
“Then Jackson was working with me last year on ‘The Jammer’ at the Atlantic,” he said, referring to The Atlantic Theatre’s production of his previous play.
“Yale had called her, asking if she wanted to do some Shakespeare, and she pitched a bunch of tragedies and heard dead silence,” he said.
Yale Rep was interested in a comedy, Jones said. So Jones and Gay sat up in her apartment after rehearsals for “The Jammer,” sipping milkshakes perhaps, brainstorming Jones’ idea.
“At first it was kind of a joke,” Gay said, “and it was one of those things that, maybe there’s something to this.”
“We thought about it and were shocked to see that the idea actually worked,” Jones said. “It sort of came through the text that the play’s about love and peace, and the metaphor that Shakespeare constantly uses in the play is music.”
Jones, who’s met with Armstrong several times to discuss his film adaptation of “American Idiot,” Green Day’s Broadway musical, explained his idea to Armstrong.
“I talked him through ‘Much Ado’ because he said, ‘You know, I barely finished high school’” said Jones. “He leaned back, stared at me and was like, ‘OK. Let me get this straight: You’re going to rewrite Shakespeare and I’m gonna rewrite The Beatles — right?’
“A few days later, he had the first song,” Jones said. “He’d written it, played the drums, the bass, the guitar, crafted a demo. Then three days later, another one came through.”
Armstrong wrote eight songs for the show, five of which The Quartos perform live, and three heard over record players and jukeboxes, Jones said.
“This man’s crazily gifted,” Jones said. “And they sound amazingly like Beatles from, like ‘Help!’ to ‘Rubber Soul.’”
Having overcome Armstrong’s apprehension of rewriting Shakespeare, Jones and Gay set about addressing their own reservations with “Much Ado About Nothing,” which glare blindingly so through the prism of the 1960s. “Then we came up with motivation for the character of Don John, which he has none,” Jones said. “So, he’s the guy who got kicked out of the band, and now he’s a roadie.
“We gave Balthasar more to do — he’s sort of the George Harrison now,” he said. “Then Jackson said, ‘What are we going to do with the women?’ So we gave the women a fashion empire. And we added some stuff to the second act, which can be sort of troublesome that the movie doesn’t deal with at all.
“Boris and Colin, the Borachio and Conrad characters, are paparazzo and gossip columnist who conspire to doctor some photos and reveal them at the wedding of the year. The Queen is in attendance, Sean Connery and The Stones — again, everybody who’s everybody is there and this photograph comes out.
“And Dad,” Jones said, referring to Hero’s father, Leonato, “who hasn’t been drinking in a while, drinks that day and, because of the pressure, everything gets out of hand.”
One might well presume that the 50th anniversary of The Beatles appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was a timely part of Jones’ intelligent design. “We got totally lucky,” he said. “We had no idea. And it totally worked out. Bully for us.”
Jones, who’s been living in Southern California and writing nearly nonstop in television on such shows as “Weeds,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Boardwalk Empire,” feels like he’s on a busman’s holiday, working again with Gay in theater.
“He’s tireless,” Gay said. “He’s so fast, probably from working in TV, where you have to be very quick. You have to keep up with him; be totally focused.
“Honestly, the thing I love most about working with Rolin — because this our fourth show working together — he loves it so much,” she said. “He really comes alive. He makes actual money, but I think if he could ... he would be writing in the theater all the time because, you could see it on his face. He’s like a little kid. He makes it fun, he makes stupid jokes, and you realize that in the midst of the stupidity of what he’s saying, there something very heart-felt and you connect.”
“I’m having a gay, old time,” said Jones, whose next project is developing an original series for AMC called “Knifeman,” a blood and guts look at a 19th century British surgeon.
“I gotta give Yale credit for agreeing to do this, with 19 actors, 11 months ago, without one word on a sheet of paper,” he said. “It’s been a godsend — not an assignment.
“I would like to tell you it was easy,” he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But I had a dark month of the soul last year trying to figure out what to do with this play. But we’ve come out on the other side.”
Meeting Jones on the other side is a cast of David Wilson Barnes, James Barry, Jabari Brisport, Stephen DeRosa, Bryan Fenkart, Ceci Fernandez, Christopher Geary, Brad Heberlee, Anthony Manna, Brian McManamon, Andrew Musselman, Keira Naughton, Adam O’Byrne, Lucas Papaelias, James Lloyd Reynolds, Jeanine Serralles, Greg Stuhr, Ariana Venturi, and Liz Wisan.
The production team includes Monica Bill Barnes (choreography); Julie McBride (music direction); Michael Yeargan (scenic design); Jessica Ford (costumes); Paul Whitaker (lighting); Broken Chord (sound design); Nicholas Hussong (projections); and Tom Kitt (orchestrations and arrangements).
“These Paper Bullets!” still contains “lots of Shakespeare,” Jones said. “But it’s a real mash-up of Billie Joe’s music, ‘Much Ado’ and Beatles mythology.
“You know the subtitle?” Jones aid, referring to the “modish ripoff” sobriquet. “That’s exactly what it is. Like taking some ’70s soul tune, putting new lyrics on it. If ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ is what we’re aiming for, it’s the energy and excitement of whipping this up really quick.
“You can feel it in the writing,” he said. “We knocked a lot of time off of it. The play normally comes in at three hours. We come in at two. It’s faster, funnier, dirtier.
“There’s a lot of energy,” Jones said. “This is not your grandparents’ ‘Much Ado.’”
Full article at New Haven Register: HERE