Seattle 11/21/2001 | After failing
to be convinced by Proof, I came to Amy Freed's
Beard of Avon, the next play in the Seattle Rep's 2001-2 season,
full of doubt and diminished expectations. Would I and my companion
be treated to yet another facile exercise in political correctness
and prime time television values masquerading as the next big thing
to hit the boards?
At least Proof had its Tony and its Pulitzer in hand; this
was only The Beard's second production after emerging earlier
this year at the South Coast Repertory
Theatre to rave reviews in the Orange County Register. In the
advance publicity there was much cause for doubtit gave the
impression that Shakespeare would be portrayed as an illiterate
country bumpkin who somehow became the front man for the true talent
behind the plays and poems that bear his name. My bets were on Queen
Elizabeth, or the social persona of Shakespeare's entire company,
as the talentor perhaps Anne his wife, in pure-bred Proof
But I was proven wrong in the eventand only too happy to
be put in my place by a play that entertains its audience by exploring
the authorship issue in a fashion almost worthy of the great bard
himself, if certainly worthy of the false "beard" he's
portrayed as here (in one of Freed's weaker flourishes of wit, alas).
While no more historically accurate (if in a different mode of innacuracy)
than Shakespeare in Love, The Beard does manage to
play the various ideological positions endemic to the authorship
controversy against each other in highly intriguing fashion throughout
its two hours traffic on the stage, without succumbing to a single
Instead, Freed works her way through to a compromise position that
is much more than the sum of its parts, and as satisfying to this
reviewer (and seemingly the entire audience on the night my companion
and I saw it) as it is factually improbable. We don't require historical
accuracy from our dramatists, howeverif we did, Shakespeare
would never have attained the reputation he has. We require only
the artistically satisfying debunking, reconciliation, and transfigurative
fulfillment of our competing prejudices: the greatest achievement
of drama is getting us all to laugh, and cry, and feel our mutual
sense of recognition dawn together.
That's Freed's greatest strength hereas it is also one of
Shakespeare's crowning glories: to please all, yet pander to none.
Since few if any of you have seen or read the play, I don't want
to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that while De Vere's claim
is given great weightand as played by Laurence Ballard, whose
star turn last season as the Serge in the Seattle Rep Art was
equally diverting, he also has the most fun enacting itShakespeare
is also given his due as the better poet, human being, and indeed
artist in the end, if somewhat plot deprived. If you want to know
more just go see it if you can, read it if you can'tand get
your local repertory theater company to play it so you can enjoy
it as much as everyone in Costa Mesa, and now Seattle, has.
Alas, The Beard itself shares the affliction it projects
on Shakespeare, and while it delights in many a reversal, is a little
lacking in denouement. If only Freed could have borrowed her plot
from the bard himself somehow, as she has cribbed all her most persuasive
poetry (the amusing, if weak, anachronistic jokes on "shithead,"
"crisis of the middle life," and so on are, or course,
her own). Freed does have a knack, though, for devolving Shakespeare's
greatest lines into something just slightly less poetic, so he can
present them as "first drafts" of the verbal achievements
we all know so well.
Beyond that, The Beard presents an account of The Taming
of the Shrew's genesis that reshuffles the ideological deck
of what is typically seen as Shakespeare's most sexist and misogynistic
play in ways that will surprise and delight even the most jaded
interpreter; Queen Elizabeth, ably presented (which is saying a
lot!) by Lori Larsen, plays a central role in this transformation.
And Anne Hathaway really does have one here, in Julie Briskman's
energetic portrayal more than holding her own against her husband
and his playfellows.
In the role of Shakespeare himself, Dan Donohue once again displays
why he's Seattle's most overworked actorhe's always droll
and up to anything, even if the part Freed has written forces him
to be more of a melancholic stick-in-the-mud than his Puck and Tuffaldino
(in the Intiman's Servant of Two Masters) earlier this year
would lead one to expect.
As I did in my Midsummer
Night's Dream review, I must again congratulate Seattle on luring
Sharon Ott away from Berkeley to helm its Rep. While I was hoping
to see her direct another actual Shakespeare play during my second
season here, I'm hardly disappointed that she knows a great play
about Shakespeare when she scouts it, and makes sure Seattle gets
to see it next, instead of New York or London. More than that, the
staging is lush, inventiveand flawless.
Who knows when The Beard will come to you? If your holiday
plans bring you near to Seattle, best to see it sooner rather than
later. There might still be a few tickets availablebut they're
going fast. Act now if you want them. I guarantee you won't regret