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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Beard of Avon
Presented by ACT


Amy Freed's The Beard of Avon opened at ACT's Geary Theatre on last Wednesday evening. This is an entertaining but imperfect production of the age old battle between the Stratfordians who believe that William Shakespeare actually wrote the 36 plays, 154 sonnets and two narrative poems, and the Oxfordians, a group that claims that Shakespeare did not write all things Shakespearean. The Oxfordians believe that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote some of the plays. The Earl was a contemporary of Shakespeare, was in the court of Queen Elizabeth and would have been prepared to write these plays. It is also suggested in this comedy that Queen Elizabeth I wrote The Taming of the Shrew .

The Beard of Avon was first presented by the South Coast Repertory Company in Orange Country on May 25, 2001. The play has since been performed by acting companies in Seattle and Salt Lake City. There will be further productions of Ms. Freed's parody at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival this year. In the meantime the playwright has been tightening the script and eventually she hopes it will reach New York. At present the play still has some flaws and the first act is disjointed. The first scene starts out very slowly with Will and his wife speaking in iambic pentameter with some Shakespeare lines thrown in. It tends to be very confusing with a rustic running on and out of the stage. Once that scene is done, the play takes off and it becomes very entertaining.

The play is about an illiterate country bumpkin named William Shaksper (his given name). Will has a talent for rhyming and a very vivid imagination. He is unhappy with his life on the farm and so, when a group of touring actors come to town, he applies for a job with the company. He journeys to London with the troupe where he meets two wonderful theater impresarios, John Heminge and Henry Condel, who remind me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Charles Dean and Charles Lanyer are outstanding in these roles.

The two impresarios decide to let Will stay with the theater group and he's given a small role in their plays as a spear shaker. They also give him a new name, William Shakespeare. Clever isn't it? Even when our hero complains of having only small roles with no speeches, the two men exclaim, "There are no small roles in the theater." What a brilliant scene.

Will meets the decadent Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who is openly bisexual and secretly a playwright. We first see him sitting in his chamber dressed in black with his unpublished manuscript of Titus Andronicus thrown about on his desk. In his hand rests a skull and it seems for a moment he might say "To be, or not to be ..." De Vere is unable to attach his name to the play since "to fraternize with actors is to debase oneself." The Earl meets young Will at the theater and hits upon an idea to put the young hero's name on the script. Thus starts a relationship between the Earl and the Bard. You might say the "beard" becomes the "bard."

The zany comedy is sprinkled with lines from Hamlet, As You like It , Taming of the Shrew and King Lear. Lines like "I'm always true to you in my fashion" come tumbling out of Shakespeare's wife and later his " boy mistress" in London says, "I'm just a girl who can't say nay." There is even a scene that is a parody of the storm scene from King Lear In the second act, it is assumed that good Queen Bess wrote Taming of the the Shrew and there is a marvelous scene of the queen sitting up in one the theater's upper box seats observing a panto rendition of the play.

The cast is superb, with Marco Barricelli playing the 17th Earl of Oxford. He is brilliant as the rakish Earl and once again his magnificent voice thunders out to the audience. There is a hilarious scene when the Earl says to Will, "I have a play about Richard III. I see a hunchback, you flesh it out". Matthew Boston plays the self-effacing William Shakespeare with both a sweetness and a passionate conviction. He is a perfect foil to the egotistical Earl.

Kandis Chappell makes a magnificent Queen Elizabeth I decked out in an outfit that would make Bette Davis or Flora Robson jealous if they were alive. She delectably plays the Queen and her royal manner is outstanding. Rene Augesen is excellent as Anne Hathaway and the boy "mistress" of both the Earl and Will. She is roguish and fun to watch. Alex Moggridge is properly fey as the sometime lover of de Vere.

Director Mark Rucker keeps the action moving at a good pace, especially in the second act. The scenery by Richardo Hernandez is clean with partial sets sliding in and out of scenes with good precision. Beaver Bauer has outdone himself in the costumes worn by the Virgin Queen.

The Beard of Avon runs through February 10 with tickets ranging from $15 to $49 on Tuesday - Thursday evenings; $19 to $61 Friday and Saturday evenings and weekend matinees. Tickets are available through the Geary Theatre Box Office, 405 Geary Street at Mason, (415)749-2228 and online at www.act-sfbay.org. The next production will be Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, opening February 21 and running through March 24. Tickets are now on sale for that production.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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