After making its way through the regionals, rather like an old-school movie, hitting the hotspots first while you wait for wide release in the nabes, Amy Freeds "The Beard of Avon"long awaited, at least by those whove read of it regularly for the last two yearshas finally landed in the Big Apple, courtesy of the New York Theatre Workshop, and I am pleased to say it is well worth the anticipation.
What I cant do, because as regular readers know, I am loath to spoil narrative surprises, even early ones in a well constructed story, is tell you too much of why. But all right, lets get a few basics out of the way.
As the title would indicate, its a comedy. As those hip to slang might intuit, its about the much-debated true identity of the author of all those plays by-lined "William, Shakespeare."
But what is not readily apparent from these clues is that Ms. Freed has something much more clever, interesting, compelling, convincing and, in a way, by the end, even touching than a mere intrigue about identity. For in this play, characters grow and change in ways for which the title doesnt completely prepare you. Lets just say that our country naïve hero, William Shakspeare (thats SHAK-speare, played by Tim Blake Nelson) is not country simple as well, nor is his rough hewn, poetic streak easily dismissed as fanciful. Nor is the nobleman playwright who wishes to remain anonymous (Mark Harelik) quite so fecund and inventive as some posthumous rumors might insist. No, the bringing together of these two forces by theatrical impressario Jophn Heminge (David Schramm) is a conjoining informed by unexpected symbiosis.
Using a dialogue patois that evokes Elizabethan English without actually being likewise dense to contemporary ears, Ms. Freed has concocted a fleet, funny, bawdy confection of literary speculation. Doug Hughes direction is every bit its equal for wit, grace and fleet narrative, and the company can hardly be bettered for such an enterprise, the other players being Timothy Doyle, James Gale, Tom Lacy, Alan Mandell, Justin Schultz, Jeff Whittyplus Kate Jennings Grant as Wills wife and the redoubtable Mary Louise Wilson in a delightful cameo as Queen Elizabethwho also sees herself as a playwright.
And having all thus lauded, I fear Ive already said too much. Like many of the Bard's plays, "The Beard" is best discovered not on the page, but on the stage. And one gets the feeling that old Will, wherever he iswhoever he iswould be amused
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