theories goes, it ranks behind the second gunman at the Kennedy
assassination but ahead of the Air Force plot to conceal the Roswell
incident. That’s the 150-year-old notion that Shakespeare wasn’t really
Shakespeare. More specifically, that the 37 stage plays and assorted
poetry attributed to William Shakespeare could not possibly have been
written by a poorly educated rube from the middling town of Stratford.
Ohio schoolteacher Delia Bacon started
all this in 1857, arguing that her possible ancestor, Sir Francis
Bacon, really was the scribe. Cults have arisen since, favoring Edmund
Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, even Queen Elizabeth
I as the “real” author. In recent years speculation (shared even by
such luminaries as actor Derek Jacobi) has zeroed on the 17th Earl of
Oxford, known on the street as Edward de Vere (1550-1604), a
well-connected libertine, bon vivant and patron of the arts. The earl,
a prolific playwright, needed a beard or front-man to avoid staining
his good name with theatrical lowlife, which is the tongue-in-cheek
argument in Amy Freed’s comedy The Beard of Avon.
Playwright Freed, wife of San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle, could be described as well-connected herself. After her Freedomland (1998) was a Pulitzer finalist, she was commissioned to write new plays for a number of prestigious companies. Her Beard of Avon
first appeared in 2001 at the South Coast Repertory Theatre, the major
theatrical player in Los Angeles’ well-heeled southern suburbs. Since
then Beard has knocked around the country, usually appearing at
major regional houses like Chicago’s Goodman. It also made Manhattan in
2003, featuring a memorable performance by Tim Blake Nelson in the
Therein lies a principal problem with the current production. With 19 scene changes, Beard
was written to allow a professional company to show off its bells and
whistles, smoke and mirrors. The Syracuse Shakespeare Festival is a
heroic bootstrap operation known for giving free summer performances at
Thornden Park. Moving indoors to a converted lecture hall in the
Syracuse University Warehouse (formerly Dunk & Bright), 350 W.
Fayette St., it boasts some talented performers willing to master lines
in difficult accents, but it lacks a light or sound board. It also
lacks space; several scenes are staged in the middle of the seating,
requiring people in the first 20 rows to crane their necks looking back
over their shoulders.
At his first entrance Will Shakspere
(Daniel S. Rowlands) cuts an unimpressive figure. Crude to the point of
loutishness, he confesses he hasn’t paid much attention in school
because of a Tudor-era attention deficit disorder. He does, however,
enjoy a modest gift for doggerel. Most of the time he’s bullied by his
harridan wife Anne Hathaway (Elisabeth Holmes), who appears to be a bit
younger instead of nine years older as we’re usually told. In a text
filled with in-jokes, playwright Freed is encouraging us to see the
Anne-Will fracas as a prefiguration of the Kate-Petruchio battles in The Taming of the Shrew, a promise on which she delivers before Beard
has run its course. When a traveling troupe of players comes to
Stratford, we immediately hear a different, more urbane accent, which
contrasts with the country tones of Will and Anne. Trouble is, instead
of sounding rural they sound Irish.
Through that traveling troupe young Will
becomes stage-struck and decides to seek his fortune in London by
dealing with actor-managers Henry Condel (Michael Dougherty) and John
Heminge (Robert Reid), whom recent Shakespeare biographers tell us were
indeed the operators who brought the Stratford kid to the big time.
Their banter reveals more of Freed’s delight in theatrical in-jokes.
They assign him the lowliest of roles, including shaking a spear
(nudge-nudge) in crowd scenes, causing the young Shakspere to
regularize the spelling and pronunciation of his own name.
Soon Will meets Edward de Vere (Gabe
Infantino), whom Freed portrays as a peremptory but libidinous
bisexual, often seen frolicking with his boyfriend Henry Wriothesley
(Matt Nilsen). In an ongoing gag, Freed has the Oxford earl proclaim Titus Andronicus his best work, usually thought the bottom of the Bard’s barrel in recent years. The most delicious turn of The Beard of Avon is that bumpkin Will grows to fill his own legend.
As Will the Beard’s fortune rises, he
acquires a mistress named Lucy. We know, from a modest G-rated
striptease, as Will does not, that Lucy is really snake-mouthed wife
Anne in a strumpet’s fetching disguise. De Vere knows and quickly beds
Lucy. Later when the earl explains to Will that the two women were one
and that he has cuckolded the Beard, Freed gives Will his best line as
compensation: “In one stroke you have destroyed the purity of my wife
and the mystery of my mistress.”
Freed’s wit sometimes fails her, however. When the otherwise haughty Queen Elizabeth (Linda Hurd) enthuses before seeing The Taming of the Shrew, she swoons, “My heart, my heart! I haven’t felt like this since the Spanish Armada.”
From The Little Engine that Could through the Rocky franchise, we’ve
been accustomed to cheer on the plucky stalwarts who take on daunting
tasks. There is little to cheer, however, when a loudspeaker blares the
same John Dowland number from Sting’s Songs from the Labyrinth in scene after scene, regardless of the emotional tone of one after another, and the song is cut brutally in mid-phrase.
Harder to take are the many lengthy
silences between scenes. Syracuse Shakespeare Festival director Ronnie
Bell explained to the press before the opening that Beard would
run perhaps two hours and 20 minutes, meaning it would end at 10:20
p.m. Instead, it concluded at 10:59 p.m. The extra 39 minutes must go
to the frequent scene changes where stagehands in Barbara Toman’s
period costumes laboriously shift painted flats or adjust the lights
before our eyes, kabuki-style, as if we didn’t notice. And 39 minutes
of silence can dissipate the impulse for laughter.
This production runs through Sunday, April 20. For information, call 476-1835.