Review: “After Paul McCartney”

Last Thursday evening found me in Indianapolis downtown. I eagerly attended the highly anticipated production of the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s final Going Solo Festival selection: After Paul McCartney. After a yummy dinner at Rock Bottom Brewery and Restaurant in Indy downtown, my date and I headed to the adjacent city block and found ourselves sitting in the third row of the upper stage at the IRT. The Going Solo Festival is going on now through March 14, 2010 at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Although last weekend the final performance of the first festival selection, Pretty Fire, wrapped up, Indianapolis people can still catch both The Year of Magical Thinking and After Paul McCartney for a short while.

After Paul McCartney is a highly anticipated piece of Indianapolis theatre, which pairs three wonderful Indianapolis artists together in an unbeatable match. NUVO Newsweekly columnist and editor David Hoppe’s script is brought to life through the work of former Butler University Theatre chair John Green and favorite Indianapolis actor Rob Johansen. Hoppe’s script offers comedy with a question mark. The story follows the madcap adventure of two friends: Philip (the narrator) and his buddy Rob (a Beatles cover artist and music genius). The pair head across the Atlantic Ocean to England in the hopes of meeting and convincing Paul McCartney that Rob is his next partner and muse, who has the awesome ability to fill the empty space left by the late John Lennon. Along the way, the pair meet an array of colorful characters, each expertly executed by Johansen. Their trip takes them through three countries on two different continents as they chase the elusive Paul McCartney.

By this point in popular culture, it is a vast under statement to say the Beatles are one of the largest cultural phenomenons ever. In 1960, they changed the way teens, adults and the whole world listened to music. Their musical style is instantly recognizable by almost any breathing human being on the planet. Their success spawned Beatlemania, copy cat bands like the Monkees and paved the way for the boy band phenomenon that dominated music in the nineties and early 2000s. On top of that, their music has been appropriated in countless ways. It has been made into a blockbuster film, Across the Universe by Julie Taymor, and even a Cirque du Soleil attraction in Las Vegas, LOVE. David Hoppe’s play, After Paul McCartney, adds to the continued cultural influence the Beatles have had on the world, but also uses the Beatles phenomenon to delve deep into a variety of issues including art, friendship, sex, nonsexual male love, finding a magnum opus and sharing cigarettes.

After Paul McCartney, like Taymor’s film, uses the Beatles music as an entry point into a much larger story. Unlike Taymor’s film, this play is actually good. In the words of director John Green, “Forty years later, time’s arrow has not diminished the Beatles’ hold on popular culture. After Paul McCartney is, in part, a testament to this fact; but like the best of Lennon and McCartney, it is also about so much more.” Because everyone has a favorite Beatles song, one that seems to speak directly to the make up of your soul, their music is an incredibly effective vehicle to decode a horde of themes. As snippets of Beatles songs are introduced, they fade into the next scene before you have a chance to belt the opening line. The audience is drawn directly into the play’s material, unable and unwilling to loosen our collective grasp on music that changed each of our lives in some small (or large) way.

If you have ever read David Hoppe’s column in NUVO (which I highly suggest you do) then you understand Hoppe’s unique and gentle voice. The same tenor of light conversation, with a punch, permeates his first script through the voice of a central character, Philip. But as Philip and his best friend Rob begin their journey together, each new character’s voice is as exceptionally different as the one who came before it. Hoppe’s descriptive diction ably paints image upon image as the journey progresses. And though it honestly feels as if our heroes flail at times, Hoppe’s writing succinctly pulls you into the play with strong, short ideas that give clues where he is taking us next. In a stroke of genius, Hoppe deciphers the meaning of “Mr. Moonlight” through the imagination of a horny English woman, making for a hilarious new angle on men and women’s varied perspectives of love and romance. Though the anecdote is funny, it has a point (a common theme throughout Hoppe’s script).

John Green, former chair of Butler University’s Theatre department, returned to Indianapolis, briefly, to remount this production of After Paul McCartney. He worked with Hoppe and Johansen a few years back to orchestrate a production for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As a former student of Dr. Green’s, I must admit bias toward his work. It was, after all, his artistic tutelage that shaped my personal understanding of theatre. But with my bias comes insider information. Having had the pleasure working with Green a handful of times, I have observed his process on occasion. As a director, he genuinely trusts his actors. Green has the ability to let his actors work, discover and grow at their own pace, gently proding and poking along the way. Evidence of an excellent working relationship with Johansen is apparent through Johansen’s success on stage. When he is there, we are there. It is as simple as that. Green’s trust and influence helps this come to fruition.

Green’s other focus as a director tends toward the visual. He chooses to dialogue through images rather than words. In After Paul McCartney, he makes his looming presence known through a photo he no doubt brought into the room, which hangs in the background of the stage. The image of the fab four is interestingly incorporated into the scenic design by Rob Koharchik, who chopped the photo off at each man’s shoulders. As the four members of the Beatles trot down a brick lined street, it is easy to wonder if it is really John, Paul, George and Ringo or, in fact, John, Paul, Rob and Philip. Ryan Koharchik’s lights the image in interesting ways throughout. He creates a multitude of varying perceptions, each of which accurately reflects the current action of the play.

Johansen is a driving force in After Paul McCartney. For ninety minutes, this powerhouse actor takes his audience on an unforgettable and jarring journey. Time and again, Johansen has graced stages across the Circle City, giving wonderful performances. But what is it that makes him so good? As Philip, he has the air of a best friend sharing an inside joke with an old college buddy. With an affable nature, Johansen draws in his audience. It is easy relax and simply be entertained by him. As he dons and drops different characters throughout, his work seems as effortless as a ballerina’s pirouettes or a figure skaters triple axle. On top of that, his physicality throughout creates an almost visible world around him, whether he is sharing a cramped flat with his trip mate or at a dank honkey tonk bar in the Southwest.

Discussing After Paul McCartney honestly is nearly impossible with speaking to the play’s end. So a warning of *spoiler alert* for those who wish to be surprised in the end. I mentioned earlier that Hoppe’s script was comedy with a question mark. As Johansen builds to the final scenes, it constantly seems possible that meeting Paul McCartney is an attainable goal. Up until the very last scene, when a drunken helicopter pilot offers to fly the pair over McCartney’s Arizona ranch, Johansen still plays the script as comedic. Even as the helicopter begins its fateful descent to the desert floor, the audience is laughing at his spot on physicality. It isn’t until the final moments of the show, the final lines even, when Hoppe delivers the punch. The lights go down, and no one even realizes the play is over until Johansen runs off stage in the dark, preparing for his curtain call. The show is hilarious, yet jarring, using comedy as a means to deliver a message.

I’ve turned the experience over in my head for days now, and still can’t wrap my brain all the way around it. It is an easy piece of theatre to walk into, and a difficult one to let go of. Still unsure about what message was being conveyed, I only know that I felt something real. I, like Philip, saw Paul McCartney as an attainable goal. And I, like Philip, had those hopes dashed and my heartbroken. In addition, I, like Philip, am happy I took the journey anyway, even if it does mean a mouthful of desert sand.

See After Paul McCartney at the IRT now through March 14, 2010. Make an evening of it by visiting any of these yummy Indianapolis restaurants and Indianapolis bars. Stay tuned to Indianapolis News, Events and Information on Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis. This is Katelyn Coyne saying, “Get out in Indy and find some fun!”

After Paul McCartney
Now through March 14, 2010

Indiana Repertory Theatre
140 W Washington St
Indianapolis, IN 46204

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