KPBS AIRDATE: JUNE 22, 2001
The play is a Shakespearean parody/comedy/mystery. Its title is a quintuple entendre. It’s a pun, of course, confusing the Beard with the Bard of Avon. It refers perhaps, to Shakespeare’s face-hair, though in the piece, he’s less concerned with his sprouted face than his balding pate. But a beard is also the barb of an arrow, a bold opposition and a mask, a front, not to mention a gay person’s opposite-sexed social ‘cover’. All of these make a gleeful appearance in Amy Freed’s heady and hilarious new comedy, getting a delicious (if slightly over-long) world premiere in Orange County at the wonderful South Coast Repertory Theatre. If you have any interest in Shakespeare or whoever wrote those 38 plays, if you love theater or comedy or conspiracy theories, this is the time for you to make the short hop north to Costa Mesa. South Coast Rep is famous for its premieres. Freed’s last venture there, “Freedomland,” a dysfunctional family fantasia, was a Pulitzer finalist. She has a terrifically quirky voice, and she’s fascinated by all manner of human behavior.
She’s written that though she once scoffed at the madly conflicting theories of Shakespeare authorship, she became obsessed by the volume and vociferousness of the arguments, and incorporates scads of them into her piece. If “Shakespeare in Love” hadn’t predated her premiere, I think she’d be hailed a genius. As it is, her play is powerful, but also strongly reminiscent of that comic film. Both concern the few known details about the life of that country bumpkin who composed epitaphs in doggerel, an illiterate who, miserable as a too-young husband and father, ran off to London around 1590 to become an actor.
The mounting of plays, the writing of plays, the egregious, salacious (but fascinating) Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as well as the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, Ben Jonson, Francis Bacon, the actor Richard Burbage — they’re all here, in all their glory. Ultimately, in this version, everyone gets into the playwriting act, and Will Shaksper (a name derived, he says, from ‘sheep’s pee’), becomes Shakespeare, their beard.
The issues raised are provocative, but they’re set amid endless, riotous anachronisms: Elizabethan lutes plucking out strains of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” early versions of the plays (like “Any Way You Want It”), and utterances evoking contemporary concerns like actor motivation, dramaturges, personal space, hyperbolic PR, attention deficit disorder, savants and weak-willed women who proclaim: ‘I’m just a maid who can’t say nay.” Director David Emmes has amusingly staged in perfectly Shakespearean style, and his cast is impeccable, especially Douglas Weston, sweetly naïve as young Will, Nike Doukas as the imperious Queen and Mark Harelik, obviously relishing his role as the lascivious Earl. It’s fun, educational, enigmatic, and it makes you wonder, after all is said and done, Who cares who wrote ’em? They’re here, they’re ours and they’re forever.
©2001 Patté Productions Inc