“We are more popular than Jesus,” John Lennon infamously uttered about the Beatles. Perhaps his claim wasn’t too far off. There is little doubt that the Bible is the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book of all time. Similarly, the Beatles top the charts as the highest-selling band with estimated sales of over two billion. In the 1960’s, Beatlemania gripped the youth of the world. Teen girls across nations were screaming, fainting and believing that these four British rock stars could walk on water.
However, Lennon’s infamous self-obsessed remark reminded me of a comparable best-selling author of all time — Shakespeare. In his sonnets, he asserted that the immortality of his work would far surpass any ephemeral human form of beauty. I wouldn’t have put it past him to say he was bigger than Jesus. Thus, it was only fitting that Shakespeare and the Beatles would eventually collide on stage at Wednesday night’s performance of “These Paper Bullets!”, a Shakespearean adaptation by Rolin Jones debuting at the Yale University Theatre.
Set in 1964, this “modish rip-off” of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” centers around the success of a Beatle-esque band “The Quartos” just returned from their tour of revelries in America. Ben (David Wilson Barnes), “promiscuous as he is cynical,” denies married life, regarding it as abhorrent. However, the other lead guitarist and singer Claude (Bryan Fenkart) is quickly struck by Cupid ’s bow and proposes to the beautiful, drug-addled fashion model Higgy (Ariana Venturi). Prior to the wedding, the fashion models and Quartos team up to play a festive Shakespearean trick. They try to force Ben to fall in love with Beatrice (Jeanine Serralles) the fashion icon. The two detest one another, but are also cut from the same mold and undeniably fated for each other.
The play, which has been heralded by Time Magazine as “one of top ten reasons for theater-lovers to leave New York,” began with a rocky start. The characters, dialogue and blocking were a little too quick and overwhelming for the audience to appreciate. The colors and flurry of chaos proved enjoyable, but as the events unraveled in rapid succession, it became easy to miss significant details and pieces of characterization.
However, it’s not hard to adapt to the raucous and intricate world of the Quartos. What must be lauded is Rolin Jones’ genius. His adaptation of Shakespeare is original and sophisticated. He knows when to mock Shakespeare, the characters, the era and even himself. He understands the intricacies of the ’60s and is able to harness the truth behind misogyny spanning the centuries. He transforms the Shakespearean females and makes them strong, sexual, vibrant, independent human beings. In one short monologue, Jones breathes the pain and infuriation of an entire gender, ripping your heart out before making you laugh moments later.
As an audience member, you must be invested and ready for the ride, because the amount of audience participation was thrilling. We were offered the chance to sing along to Irish tunes, converse with the BBC press and stand at a suspenseful wedding procession — we were just as much a part of the production as the Quartos. In the style of Shakespeare’s trademark soliloquies, Ben broke the fourth wall.
But all of this festive participation comes at a price. You and I can no longer sit as mindless, passive recipients of theatre. Instead, we must be engaged because now we have become an integral part of the action. This is my unapologetic attack on the couple who sat next to me, who did neither sang along nor stood when they were asked. You two — woman in scarf and man in frumpy coat — hurt my experience of the performance because for one solid minute you reminded me that this was a production. As audience members, we sometimes forget that we can only give as much truth and meaning to any experience as we desire.
We can all be the screaming fan girl at a concert, the sex-crazed rock star midst his hangover, the prestigious aristocrat attending a wedding and a raucous drug-addled partygoer. Those who step foot in the theater must be ready to be immersed in a beautiful and sometimes ludicrous world of revelry and love. This is the only way to appreciate the quick wit, humor and passion that is “These Paper Bullets!”. I won’t go as far as to say it’s bigger than Jesus, but it may just surpass the likes of Shakespeare.
Correction, March 28: a previous version of this article misattributed a recommendation for the play to The New York Times. In fact, it came from Time Magazine.