Eternal questions

The Beard of Avon at the Publick; Happy Days at Gloucester
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  July 11, 2006


THE BEARD OF AVON: Imagine Shakespeare in Love with the Three Stooges instead of Gwyneth Paltrow.
Bard or beard — that is the question. But it’s the query itself, as a hotbed for Elizabethan backstage farce, rather than the answer that interests playwright Amy Freed. Her linguistically gymnastic entry into the debate over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, The Beard of Avon (at the Publick Theatre, in repertory through September 3), suggests that everybody short of the Globe ticket taker had a hand in the canon, including sweet Stratford bumpkin Will Shakspere himself. Here a stage-smitten rewrite man with a knack for rhyme, Shakespeare is the initially awed and later affronted eye of a comic hurricane that includes all the usual ghostwriter suspects, led by a glibly dissolute Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, and extending to a pedantically untalented Francis Bacon and the Virgin Queen herself, whose desire for a little rough trade spurs her to pen The Taming of the Shrew. When she appears to view her creation, which is being passed off as the work of the universal beard, every phoneme causes her paroxysms of chortles — though the ending, before Shakespeare polishes it up with Katherine’s famous paean to wifely duty, is an endless Punch and Judy loop. Freed’s whole whimsical exercise, bristling with syntactical as well as outright borrowings from the Bard and arch anachronisms (Shakespeare complains of “a most pernicious deficit of my attention’s order”), is cleverly conceived fun. And if the mosquitoes don’t eat you alive at the outdoor Publick Theatre, where the bug crop seems to have flourished in the recent rain, the simultaneous chewing of scenery will do nothing to affront.

Imagine Shakespeare in Love with Gwyneth Paltrow removed and the Three Stooges thrown in, or Noises Off in a bodkin, and you’ve got the gist of Freed’s bawdy romp, which debuted at California’s South Coast Rep in 2001. Shakespeare is an unhappy, folically challenged fellow forced into a shotgun marriage with his babysitter, who immediately morphs from vixen to shrew. He flees responsibility and the cow patties to follow a theater company led by John Heminge and Henry Condol to London. Since the troupe’s every offering revolves around the same codpiece-and-shtupping shtick, it could use a playwright. (The one whose effort they’ve just bowdlerized hangs himself rather convincingly from a convenient tree adjacent to the playing space.) De Vere has a trunkful of manuscripts but couldn’t possibly sully himself by abandoning such aristocratic pursuits as hawking and servant slaughter for open dramaturgy. So he borrows Shakespeare’s name (not to mention his wife, who’s followed Will to town hoping to re-seduce him). Eventually the two writers become a sort of Kaufman and Hart — with Kaufman getting all the public credit while Hart usurps it among the cognoscenti.

There is a quasi-serious meditation on the nature of creativity afoot in all this, though you may miss it. The facile de Vere has the education, experience, and vocabulary (not to mention a gift for sensationalism, as exhibited in Titus Andronicus) but lacks heart: he’s the Tin Man crossed with the Libertine. It’s Shakespeare who supplies the partnership with emotion and pathos. But the notion of duality fused into genius is largely swallowed in all the physical comedy and Shakespeare jokes. The allusive relation of feeling to art is best summed up in a ditty by Steven Barkhimer that’s affectingly sung by Ellen Adair as the pretty young actor regularly subjected to Richard Burbage’s “Have I got a sausage for you” routines. To wit: “Everything from nothing comes to those who love.”

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