Extravagantly produced entertainment that presents Will Shakespeare as the warm-hearted collaborating front man ("beard") for the jaded intellectual Edward de Vere. Superbly written examination of a conspiracy theory, as well as a reflection on playwrighting talent, both embedded within a spectacular and colorful period comedy. Stunning performances and outstanding direction.
Directed by David Petrarca. Set by Michael Yeargan. Lights by James Ingalls. Costumes by Jane Greenwood. Sound and original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.
Rob Campbell (Shakespeare), Hollis Resnick (Anne Hathaway), Craig Spidle (Richard Burbage), Greg Vinkler (John Heminge), Jeffrey Hutchinson (Henry Condel), Mark Harelik (Edward de Vere), Joe Foust (Fitch), Ora Jones (Queen Elizabeth).
The Goodman Theatre's production of Amy Freed's 2001 play The Beard of Avon is a seriocomic reflection on the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Freed presents Will Shakspere as a simple but soulful farmer journeying to try his hand in the theatre district of early 1590s London. The flamboyant Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, uses Will as a front man - or "beard" - for his scholarly plays because playwrighting and the theatrical arts are looked down upon by court and London society. Regarding Shakespearean authorship issues, Freed described herself in interviews with Chicago critics as "an agnostic with Stratfordian leanings," and to her credit, The Beard of Avon treats the issue with believable complexity and complications. The two men continue writing separately, but each has a collaborative influence on the other: the intellectual de Vere begins to display more honest emotion, and the poignant Will, with free reign within the Earl of Oxford's expansive library, becomes more sophisticated and worldly. With the death of de Vere in 1604 - itself a hurdle for the pure Oxfordian argument for authorship of the plays - Will has a catalog of uncompleted manuscripts and assorted offerings from other dignitaries seeking a beard, plus his own considerably developed writing skills, with which to continue "his" career.
Mark Harelik, who originated the role of de Vere for South Coast Repertory, plays the hyper-educated Earl as a longhaired swashbuckler gone to seed. Harelik aptly described Freed's writing approach as "Tom Stoppard meets the Three Stooges." Harelik's witty de Vere delights onstage, a remarkable combination of Oscar Wilde and Douglas Fairbanks, and director David Petrarca fashions a colorful period comedy with this character at its center.
The production begins within the loft of Will Shakspere's barn in rural Stratford. Sitting amid bales of hay with moonlight creeping between wooden slats and a light rainfall visible through a large upstage window, Rob Campbell's Will ponders his life and fortune. The fiery Anne Hathaway enters, not as expected through the center stage loft opening but up an unseen ladder to clamber through the upstage window. They talk - "I didn't know it would be like this" - and Will resolves to travel to London.
Petrarca presents the Bankside with splashes of color. The walls of Will's rustic barn slide away as the players swarm the stage with bawdy jokes and waving foils. A tethered bear for baiting ambles past a small-scale replica of the Curtain Theatre. Heminges and Condel, portrayed with comical dither and sputter by a pair of veteran Chicago character actors, seek a "spear-shaker" to be a front man "playwright." The amiable Shakspere, balding, dark-clothed and stage struck, tending to horses as a "horse holder" and merely wielding a spear onstage as a theatrical extra, seems ideal for the purpose.
Harelik's de Vere, as ostentatious as Campbell's Will is reserved, lounges upon his canopied bed within his expansive bedroom. A servant plays a lute, silhouetted before two huge upstage windows, and the Earl's writing desk is at stage right. De Vere, with long, dark curly hair and mustache and chin-beard, seems vain and impulsive - he pushes the lute player out the window then drops the instrument after him - as he reflects upon his life ("all that's left of the heir of the de Veres is the hair of the de Veres") and especially upon his poetry and dramas ("my work lacks warmth"). Freed supplies an interesting insight into sixteenth century play construction during the subsequent scene at the Curtain, with a comment that a Fitch script was considerably "improved upon" and transformed by its players and production. The players also discuss de Vere's surprisingly intimate sonnets, with a mysterious "dark lady" enamored with "Jeffrey."
At court, indicated with a long black-and-white backdrop of an expansive Elizabethan interior, Queen Elizabeth addresses her nobles. Elizabeth commands her court - and the stage - with marvelous fury, wide-eyed and quick to blustering anger ("what? de Vere not here!") and demanding instant response from her toady nobles. She awaits loud laughter at her humorous remarks, then silences it with waves from her arms. After wondering which whorehouse to send to for de Vere, she speaks of love and her own playwrighting ambitions. When de Vere arrives, familiar Shakespearean phrases are spoken ("howl! howl! howl!") and stories told: one noble is captured by pirates but escapes, and another tells of a beautiful girl found drowned with flowers in her hair.
In Shakespearean style, Anne arrives disguised as a prostitute, and her presence complicates everything. She is wooed and bedded by the comically debonair de Vere ("call me O") and relishes her adventure: "I've been awful - it's been wonderful!" De Vere and Will compete for Anne's affections ("I'm a maid who can't say nay") in an impromptu poetry contest that shows both Will's developing craft and de Vere's developing humanity. When Harelik's de Vere reveals his curly locks to be merely a wig, the two poets bond and revel in their deceit (the world will "reel with questions of our authorship"). De Vere points admiringly to Will's heart, and Will in turn gestures to de Vere's head to acknowledge his intellect.
Back at Queen Elizabeth's Court, de Vere's lovely sonnet collection is seen as obviously Shakespeare's due to the poems' intimacy, despite the Earl's protests: the Queen wryly comments, "one didn't know one had it in one." The frustrated de Vere disparages Francis Bacon as having "all the poetry of a mathematician." The Queen's own play, The Taming of the Shrew, is to be staged by Will's company, although Will is tiring of being a front man, even for the Queen, with his own writing now surpassing de Vere's. He complains about de Vere's attitude toward their collaboration: for the history of Richard III, the Earl tells him, "I see a hunchback - you flesh it out" and disparages Will's reputation as a mere horse holder: "They still ask for you."
The production of Shrew is the play's comic set piece, with Will onstage as Christopher Sly and the Queen herself within a seat in the actual audience, hushing patrons around her and glaring at people. She makes frequent comments out loud - when Petruchio slaps Katherine, Elizabeth says, "Do it again; she likes it" - but when Will modifies the ending of the play with the tender lines about marital relationships, she calls him an "upstart crow" and warns, "You are in water most enormously hot."
Aspiring playwrights and nobility seeking anonymity bring a slew of manuscripts to Will in hope he will be their beard. Harelik's de Vere responds with characteristic bemusement - "leave manuscripts in yonder bucket" - and asks a playwright with a bulge under his cloak if he is delivering a manuscript, "Or art thou just glad to see me?" Campbell's Will makes a comment that is appropriately pithy: "No man could write all these plays. Who would believe it?"
The production concludes with de Vere's 1604 death from the bubonic plague: "a pox on this plague!" De Vere summarizes his own talents from his deathbed - "Great gift for poetry, no gift for plot" - and gifts Will (and makes a fabulous in-joke) with his latest complete play about revelries during Twelfth Night: "call it what you will." Now the vaunted William Shakespeare, Campbell's earnest Will possesses a wealth of uncompleted manuscripts and his own talents to continue writing plays in London.
Freed's relatively new play - three scenes shorter here than in its original version - is first a clever period comedy, second an interesting conjecture regarding Shakespearean authorship, and third an examination of nature versus nurture and artistic expression. Her Will Shakspere is something of an unlikely but likeable hero - when confused, he comments on "a most pernicious deficit of my attention's ordering" - who takes verbal abuse from others: Heminges comments that his name is "a derivative of sheep's pee, we think," and the Queen yells at him, "were you born in a barn?" then realizes that he probably was.
In the hands of Petrarca and the Goodman Theatre, Freed's The Beard of Avon is a fascinating take on dramatic history as well as witty and colorful entertainment.
Note: A version of this article was edited and published in Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol.21, No.2, Spring/Summer 2003.