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A CurtainUp Review

The Beard of Avon




I need a Mask. A Beard. To lend me his name. A front man who can be trusted
---Edward De Vere
Tim Blake Nelson as William Shakespere
The rumors about William Shakespeare not being the author of his plays and sonnets have been flying about since his death in 1616. How could a glove maker's son with a rudimentary education have created thirty-seven plays and over a hundred poems that have endured through the centuries, enriching not just world drama but our everyday vocabulary? There's no shortage of scholars who have pondered the question of the authenticity of the Shakespeare by-line. But it took Amy Freed to turn this literary conundrum into a highly entertaining and comic fantasy full of intriguing parallels and word play that would probably amuse the great wordsmith himself -- whoever he may have been.

Leaving no rumor unexplored, Ms. Freed takes us on a romp back to Stratford-on-Avon and London during Elizabethan times. The Will (Tim Blake Nelson) we meet is loutish and uneducated (his reading possibly hampered "a most pernicious deficit of my attention's ordering", which further exemplifies continually used Shakespearian nomenclature). He has a penchant for doggerel and a visit from a visiting troupe of players leaves him so stage struck that he runs away from his harridan of a wife, Anne Hathaway (Kate Jennings Grant), to become an actor in London. This being a fantasy, Will catches up with the company he saw in Stratford and proves himself enough of a "good extempore, doggeral man" for the actor-managers, Henry Condel (Alan Mandell), and , John Heminge (David Schramm), to take him on as a "spear shaker" (turn that variant of spear carrying extras around and you have some idea of the many acrobatic verbal twists and turns you can expect).

With his foot hardly planted inside the theatrical world, Will meets the man most often suspected of being the real author behind the Shakespeare by-line: Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford (Mark Harelik), for whom writing plays is the one worthy activity in an otherwise dissolute life. His bad behavior notwithstanding, the Earl continues to be part of the royal social set but he knows that he would be going too far if he threw in his lot with theater people. Thus he's been keeping his plays locked in a trunk -- until, encouraged by his young lover Henry Wriothesley (Jeff Whitty), he concocts the scheme of using a beard or front man. That Beard is, of course, none other than the man now fondly known to all as The Bard. The rest is -- well, if not foolproof history -- an inspired couldda-happened comedic brew.

Given Will's bent for improvisation and rhyme, it's only a step from merely signing his name to DeVere's manuscripts to embroidering them. And, given De Vere's intelligence, it's easy to imagine his recognizing that Will's "adding a speech here, a soliloquy there. . .some accidental insight into the soul of the common man an idea." add a missing warmth and natural poetry to his plays. Whether from altruism or to foster the collaboration, the older man provides the eager to learn Will with books to educate himself and there's a bonding which, with Freed's anything's possible approach, carries a hint that Will doesn't rule out the possibility of something a touch more sensual.

  Mary Louise Wilson as Queen Elizabeth
Mary Louise Wilson as Queen Elizabeth
The basic conceit of Shakespeare's creativity blossoming as DeVere's front man and De Vere becoming Shakespeare's champion brings on other would-be playwrights-- all considered possible Shakespeares and all with manuscripts they want produced under cover of the fashionable new nom-de-plume or what Shakespeare despairingly says has become a mere "brand name."

In one of the play's funniest scenes, the Condel and Heminge troupe puts on The Taming of the Shrew penned by none other than Queen Elizabeth (Mary Louise Wilson). The play is saved from a flat, go-nowhere ending by the unsolicited additions from bit player Will. His fixes both outrage and enchant the Queen and are endorsed with a "whatever worketh" from the director.

As complication piles upon complication so do the opportunities, gleefully seized by Ms. Freed, to satirize the authorship controversy as well as the theater in general and to flavor her dialogue with Elizabethan verse that seems, and at times is, lifted right from a Shakespeare text. Occasionally this merry linguistic mix also borrows from current culture (for example, when Anne's sexual encounter with De Vere ends her attempt to woo Will back to Stratford she rueful declares "I'm just a maid who can't say nay", echoing Oklahoma's Annie Ado).

Allusions to characters and scenes from other well-known Bardian plays pop up everywhere. There's the Beatrice and Benedick-like squabbling of Ann and Will, De Vere's vision of a hunchback who he hopes Will can "flesh out" (to become Richard III ), and finally, Will's Lear-like return to Stratford.

This New York premiere of The Beard of Avon, which has already enjoyed numerous other stagings at prestigious theaters like The Seattle Rep and the Goodman in Chicago, features a cast of eleven top-notch actors, many of them deftly navigating several roles. Mark Harelik and Tim Blake Nelson balance each other perfectly -- Harelik as a marvelously flamboyant DeVere and Nelson as the nebbish-y, " trustworthy-to-the-grave" and "most-damnably-without-hair" Will Shakespere who comes to resent the idea of being "a sporting tunic for -- each slumming lord, who -- bored with the getting of bastards--longs to write a play."

Kate Jennings Grant is a convincingly bawdy and shrewish Anne Hathaway. Mary Louise Wilson, her face chalk white and her body encased in frills and furbelows, is an at once regal and uproariously funny Queen Elizabeth. Jeff Whitty, who was a major asset in Freed's Pulitzer Prize runner up, Freedomland, and currently best known for writing the book for the hit musical Avenue Q, intelligently refrains from making DeVere's soft-spoken lover too campy. David Schramm invests the role of John Heminge with his usual robust comic flair. The durector of Beard, Dough Hughes, sees to it that everyone is at home with the high and low jinx and his design team fully captures the Elizabethan era's color and flavor -- from Neil Patel's wood-beamed set with its allusionary touches to Catherine Zuber's finely detailed costumes and David Van Tieghem's original music.

Shakespeare's legend and language is well enough known for even those who haven't been brushing up on their Shakespeare to follow much of what's going on. The real head scratcher is the still unresolved question as to whether Shakespeare was a Beard for some other writer or himself the Great Bard.

For a review of Amy Freed's Pulitzer Prize nominated Freedomland go here

The Beard of Avon
Written by Amy Freed
Directed by Doug Hughes
Cast (alphabetical order): Timothy Doyle(Minstrel, Walter Fitch, Earl of Derby, Player); James Gale (Richard Burbage, Lord Walsingham); Kate Jennings Grant (Anne Hathaway); Mark Harelik (Edward De Vere); Tom Lacy (Old Colin, Lord Burleigh, Lucy, Player); Alan Mandell (Henry Condel, Sir Frances Bacon); Tim Blake Nelson (William Shakepere); David Schramm (John Hemlinge); Justin Schultz (Geoffrey Dunderbroad, Lady Lettuce; Jeff Whitty (Henry Wriothesley, Player); Mary Louise Wilson (Queen Elizabeth)
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Catherine Zumer
Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski
Original Music & Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht
Running time: 2 and 1/2 hours, including 1-15 minute intermission.
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street ( 2nd Avenue/Bowery) 212/239-6200
From 11/17/03 to 12/21/03; opening 11/18/03 -- $60
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 16th press preview

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