By Amy Freed
Directed by Doug Hughes
New York Theatre Workshop
70 East 4th Street / New York, NY 10003 / (212) 460-5475

Reviewed by David Spencer

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 Freed’s "The Beard of Avon"–long awaited, at least by those who’ve read of it regularly for the last two years–has 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 can’t 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, let’s get a few basics out of the way.

As the title would indicate, it’s a comedy. As those hip to slang might intuit, it’s 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 doesn’t completely prepare you. Let’s just say that our country naïve hero, William Shakspeare (that’s 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 Whitty–plus Kate Jennings Grant as Will’s wife and the redoubtable Mary Louise Wilson in a delightful cameo as Queen Elizabeth–who also sees herself as a playwright.

And having all thus lauded, I fear I’ve 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 is—whoever he is—would be amused…

Go to David Spencer's Bio
Return to Home Page