Reviewed by Will Stackman
The major problem with Amy Freed's comedy "The Beard of Avon", a somewhat show-biz take on the "authorship" question which has engaged some Shakespeare scholars--and not a few crackpots--over the years, is that while sporadically funny, it's not a very good play, even for a farce. Originally commissioned by L.A.'s South Coast Rep in 2001, this racy contemporary farrago set in Elizabethan England, plays with the Bard's life and language. Its clever pseudo conclusions may offend some of the Oxfordians and will certainly set Stratfordians quibbling. The rest of the audience for this production does get a good laugh at it all, aided Diego Arciniegas' well-paced direction.
The central characters are Edward DeVere, the dissolute Earl of Oxford, played by local stalwart Bill Mootos, and Will Shakspere(sic) played by Gabriel Kuttner, last seen in Sugan's "Talking to Terrorists." Publick Theatre regular Eric Hamel plays Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton in a Oscar/Bosey relationship to DeVere, while bumpkin Will is attached to a put-upon Anne Hathaway played by versatile comedienne Helen McElwain The complications which ensue are a mix of period and modern comedy, with plenty of innuendo as a bed is central to several scenes. The action includes Queen Elizabeth, played in high style by M. Lynda Robinson and the members of the vagabond company Will runs off with. Richard Arum plays John Heminge and Gerald Slattery is Henry Condol, the two actors named in Shakespeare's last will and testament. Ellen Adair, seen last summer in "Arcadia" has great fun playing Geoffrey Dunderhead, the boy who plays female roles, a part originally written for a young man, while Risher Reddick is a blustering Richard Burbage. Barry Press, who will play Neils Bohr in Publick's "Copenhagen" which opens later in the month, gets three roles; Old Colin--a Stratford friend of the Shaksperes--Lord Derby, and Walter Fitch, a mythical mistreated playwright. Others in the acting company double as members of the Court; Bacon, Walsingham, Burleigh, and Lady Lettice, Only Walsingham, done by Reddick, has any authenticity.
Students of the minutiae of the Elizabethan court will find Freed's characters rather far from the mark at times, but this script only pretends to be historical, unlike some attempts, such as William Gibson's "The Cry of Players." Her Will is perhaps too much the rube and puritanical Anne Hathaway would have been scandalized by her role to say the least. But the play--or rather the farce--is the thing, and "The Beard of Avon"--jokey West Coast title and all--is first and foremost a modern comedy, closer to Stoppard, Hollinger or Blessing than anything Elizabethan or even 19th century. The author touches briefly on the desire to create which animates the two main characters, but reaches only a conventional conclusion, bolstered by improbability. Continuing scholarship raises a variety of questions. There are no recorded instances of contact between the two Earls, Oxford and Southampton, for example.
Emerson's Rafeal Jaen provides first class period costumes with contemporary touches--DeVere is in leather and McElwain gets to show quite a bit of leg. The basic staging has been further upgraded and allows Judy Stacier from Tufts to create a variety of environs, well lit by production manager Anthony Phelps, once the sun goes down. The vegetation behind the stage has been considerably trimmed, which allows for a deeper view but increases sound from the river and highway beyond. Steven Barkhimer has contributed an original score which suggests the period without becoming precious. The ensemble manages to be convincingly Elizabethan while playing in contemporary style. Freed's script doesn't really contribute that much to the "question" but it does raise interesting issues of inspiration and human nature. Given the choice between exploring an idea and pulling a gag, "The Beard of Avon"'s more liable to go for the laugh, which results in a pleasant entertainment with a few thoughtful moments. One doubts that the author intended any of it to be taken very seriously, even though this script has gotten more productions than her Pulitzer Prize nominated "Freedomland." O Tempora, O Mores.