Shakespeare Plus The Beatles, Sort of, at Yale Rep

Apr 3, 2014

Yale Repertory Theatre’s current production plays on Shakespeare to tell the story of The Beatles’ triumphant return to England from the U.S. in 1964. Except the band isn’t quite The Beatles, the language isn’t entirely Shakespeare’s, and the songs aren’t by Lennon and McCartney.

William Shakespeare’s comedy "Much Ado About Nothing" starts as the story of a band of men returning home from battle, victorious. Their heroes’ welcome reminded playwright Rolin Jones of a different band of men—of a mop-topped band of men—returning home from a different sort of trip abroad.

In the original Shakespeare, the character Don Pedro is a triumphant prince. In Jones’s "These Paper Bullets!," Pedro is a triumphant… drummer.

“Finding the personality parallels in the different characters just worked so beautifully and one of [Rolin’s] great strengths in this piece is how seamless the language [is],” James Barry, who plays the drummer version of Pedro, said. “You can go from something so modern and scatological to something so poetic and profound. It’s actually tough to tell which of those ends of the spectrum was more informed by modern comedy or Shakespeare. ’Cause it’s there in both.”

And it is both. Rather than repurposing Shakespeare’s original text whole cloth for swingin’ ’60s London, the language here is a hybrid. Some lines are Shakespeare; some lines are Jones. Some lines are, actually, both.

“They took to calling it Jones-peare because it was such a seamless sort of a blend,” Bryan Fenkart said. Fenkart plays Claude, the Fiorentini lord Claudio reimagined as a bassist. “It’s such a mashup of all these different elements. They call it a modish ripoff of 'Much Ado About Nothing.' It’s reminiscent of The Beatles, but it’s not about them by any means. It’s just sort of a throwback to that time and that style of music more than anything else.”

Fenkart and Barry make up two quarters of The Quartos, a four-piece band that certainly alludes to the Fab Four, but which has its own identity—in the form of these, sort of, Shakespearean characters, and in the form of songs commissioned specifically for this new play, and written by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong.

In this production, Fenkart plays the bass and Barry plays the drums, instruments which neither actor really even knew how to play before they got these jobs. Bryan Fenkart, for instance, wasn’t really a bass player, but an accomplished real-world piano player.

“It was one of those challenges that as an actor and a musician you really—you crave those things to sink your teeth into,” he said. “You live for the next challenge. And to pick up a new instrument, it’s like learning a new language.”

And James Barry, who’s been playing guitar and bass in bands for most of his life, finds himself on stage, every night, a drummer. “I mean it wasn’t as though I’d never sat behind a drum set before, but I certainly had never played live, never played with a band,” he said. But “it’s such a rock-n-roll fantasy to play the drums with a band, you know? I’m just stopping feeling like I’m being shot out of a cannon at the beginning of the show playing drums.”

“That’s the unfortunate thing about a run that’s this short when you’ve put so much work and passion and energy into it,” Fenkart said. “Just when you’re starting to hit your stride, you’re like, all right now I feel comfortable doing this.”

But the show’s closing soon.

“At the end of the first week I was already sort of preemptively depressed knowing how much I was gonna miss all these people after this brief experience,” Barry said. “It’s the kind of thing that makes you cross your fingers and hope there’s more life in it down the road.”

Neither actor is really ready to say goodbye to these characters, this band, this show. But the three-week, world premiere run of These Paper Bullets! ends this weekend in New Haven.

For tickets and more info, visit the Yale Rep’s website.