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"It's Gonna Be Awesome!" Nicole Parker on Shakespeare/Beatles Mash-Up These Paper Bullets!

Parker stars in Rolin Jones' "modish rip-off" of Much Ado About Nothing, featuring new songs by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong.

For Nicole Parker, the new play-with-music These Paper Bullets! is a gift that will keep on giving. "Someone said the other day, 'Can you imagine? You'll be doing this show in 2016.' We're doing this show until next year, which is awesome."

Written by Rolin Jones and featuring songs by Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong, this 1960s-flavored riff on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is currently in performance at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, where it runs through October 18. After less than a monthlong break, it will reopen off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, where it will play through early January.

A veteran of MadTV and a former Elphaba in Wicked, Parker is pumped to be part of the cast of Jackson Gay's production, and in a leading-lady role, no less. On the morning of the first L.A. preview, she talked with TheaterMania about playing Beatrice to Justin Kirk's Benedick, singing the tunes of a legendary punk rocker, and enjoying the work that comes with putting together a play from the ground up.

Nicole Parker as Bea and Justin Kirk as Ben in Rolin Jones' These Paper Bullets! at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Michael Lamont)

Given that These Paper Bullets! has been produced before, and several members of the original 2014 Yale Rep cast are continuing with the production, how did you get involved?
They had a couple of actors who had become unavailable for this run and the run in New York. That happened with my role. I remember reading about this show whenever it was announced and thought, "Oh, that's so cool. Oh, well." It was one of those happy, surprise circumstances where you get an audition in July and you're like, "For this? Really?" I've always wanted to work at the Geffen. There's not a lot of opportunities to do theater right in Los Angeles. I also love the Atlantic. It's a very unique situation to know that we get to do it in two separate places, and they're two places I've always wanted to work.

It's billed as a "modish rip-off of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing." How closely does it stick to the original Shakespeare?
I think it's a loving rip-off. It's a unique blend of weaving in and out of the original text and updating it and, in some ways, commenting on it. It has found a way to be a nice tribute to [the original] and to have a little fun with it, as well.

I am Beatrice and Justin Kirk is Benedick, but we are "Bea" and "Ben" in this version. The four main male characters, that in the play are soldiers who have returned home from war, are [here] called the Quartos, à la the Beatles, who have returned home from a tour of America. There are a lot of fun Easter eggs, especially if you're a big Shakespeare fan or know Much Ado. If you're not familiar with Shakespeare, you're absolutely going to be fine and know what's going on. If you love the original text, a lot of that has been preserved.

Nicole Parker has been seen in as Elphaba in Wicked, Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and Red in The People in the Picture.
(production photos © Joan Marcus and Isaac James)

You and Justin have never worked together before. How have the two of you gone about creating that "merry war" between Bea and Ben?
You show up to rehearsal and you start going back and forth teasing the heck out of each other. We've had fun. You have to be able to rib each other and just take it. That's the way Beatrice and Benedick's relationship works [and it] has to already be established by the time you walk onstage. They also have a history, which I think is highlighted really nicely in the show. [Playwright] Rolin [Jones] has given Beatrice and Benedick individually cool careers. He's the lead of the Quartos. He's a rock star. But Bea, they based her on Mary Quant, the British designer who [created] the miniskirt.

She has a background now, as opposed to just being tart-tongued.
As opposed to [her being] a gal who's silly and witty, and waiting for the boys to come home. I love that Bea gets to be this wonderful, fabulous, rock star in the fashion world. She now has that empowerment of "I don't need you. I've got a fabulous life." So there gets to be that extra discovery of "maybe that's not everything, maybe the human condition wants what it wants, and it wants a partner." It makes that even richer when the two of them come together.

Nicole Parker plays a character named "Bea," which is modeled after the British fashion designer Mary Quant.
(© Michael Lamont)

How do Billie Joe Armstrong's songs factor into the plot? Did he write new songs?
Many of them have been crafted just for this. This is a play with music, but just like in a musical, the songs give insight into a character or move the plot along. [The songs] are always sung in the context of the Quartos, either recording a song for a new album or performing in a concert. Billie Joe has created this sound in which you can hear little echoes of Beatles songs. But at the same time, there are a couple songs you listen to and they're just instantly in your ear and original sounding and fresh, while being a nod to that Beatles style. Watching these four guys get up and speak Shakespeare, and then all of a sudden, they're playing these awesome vintage guitars and it looks amazing. Sitting in the audience, I'm like, "I really don't remember seeing something this cool."

Even though they've had the previous Yale Rep production, are they treating this like a brand-new staging?
They understand they've got these different actors and they're going to bring their own thing role, letting us take what we do, and help shape it around what we do…I love new work and to be part of the process of trying new things every night. Every single person in this show has such a great sense of humor, but it's so individual to [him or her], and so specific. Somehow, this show has managed to highlight that for every person. Everyone is a rock star, with multiple moments in the show that are my favorite. It's gonna be awesome.

A scene from These Paper Bullets! at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Michael Lamont)