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Beard Worthy

The Beard of Avon unexpectedly compelling in delightful Seattle Rep production

By Prospero

Seattle 11/21/2001 | After failing to be convinced by Proof, I came to Amy Freed's The 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 doubt—it 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 talent—or perhaps Anne his wife, in pure-bred Proof fashion.

But I was proven wrong in the event—and 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 one.

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, however—if 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 here—as 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 weight—and 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 it—Shakespeare 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't—and 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 actor—he'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, inventive—and 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 available—but they're going fast. Act now if you want them. I guarantee you won't regret it.

Copyright 2001 Dana Spradley, Publisher, for
First posted Thursday November 29, 2001.

The Beard of Avon plays through December 23, 2001.

For more information on this and other plays in the Seattle Repertory Theatre season, see their website.