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Seattle by Jonathan Frank


The Beard Of Avon, A Christmas Carol, and
The Prince and the Pauper

In the literary world, there is little that fans the fires of verbal sparring like the centuries old debate over the authorship of some of the greatest plays and poems ever written. I am, of course, referring to the works commonly attributed to William Shakespeare, whose 37 plays and 109 sonnets have been read and performed all over the globe. While the author's genius is rarely, if ever, called into question, his (or her) identity is.

On the one side are those who find it hard to believe that a marginally educated glove-maker's son could write some of the finest works in the English language. On the other are those who find the naysayers to be elitist snobs who can't bear to acknowledge natural talent. (Please note that I fall squarely into the 'of course Shakespeare wrote them, silly' camp). Throughout the centuries, suspected authors have included Sir Francis Bacon and even Queen Elizabeth I herself. The chief suspect, however, is Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who not only was a patron of two acting companies but is known to have been a writer as well.

The Beard of Avon
Laurence Ballard and
Dan Donahue
Playwright Amy Freed has distilled this debate into a highly entertaining play, The Beard Of Avon, currently on stage at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. A marriage of Shakespeare In Love and Monty Python, The Beard Of Avon combines elements of every theory, no matter how sound or insane, and concentrates them into a highly entertaining elixir. In Beard, Edward De Vere (played with scene stealing gusto by the always wonderful Laurence Ballard) needs a front man, or 'beard,' so that his plays can be produced without bringing shame upon his noble estate. (The fact that Edward, self-described in Beard as being a sadistic, buggering, sodomizing, murdering pederast, would even worry about that gives one a clue as to what esteem theater folk were held in Elizabethan England). Edward comes into contact with young William Shaksper (Dan Donohue), a poet-spouting bit player who dreams of becoming a real actor instead of the 'spear shaker' (i.e. extra) he is constantly being relegated to. The two men strike a deal: Edward will write the plays with the newly renamed William Shakespeare (get it?) acting as his beard and getting all the credit and recognition. When Will starts adding his own poetry into the works, Shakespeare's plays become hits and every other noble with an unproduced play wants in on the action.

The Beard Of Avon is definitely one of those shows whose enjoyment is largely determined by the education and background of its viewers. Fans of Shakespeare's works will get a kick out of the way Freed seamlessly weaves snippets of actual Shakespearean text and situations throughout the play, turning Beard into a veritable scavenger hunt. For example, the sparring between Will and his shrew of a wife, Anne Hathaway (Julie Briskman), recalls the verbal battles of Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (indeed: Will and Anne are constantly spouting the florid verse so prevalent in Shakespeare's plays and even end all of their conversations in rhyming couplets). Those with even a smattering of experience in backstage goings-on will laugh at a veritable treasure trove of throwaway gags contained in the show (my favorite being the pen and ink headshots and resumes). People unfamiliar with Shakespeare's works or theater in general will be in for some head scratching, I'm afraid, as the comedy and drama in the show are based almost entirely on tensions and parodies of the aforementioned items, instead of through relationships or situations.

The direction by Sharon Ott is brisk and never misses a beat or joke. The sets (Kent Dorsey) and costumes (Anna R. Oliver) capture the era perfectly. Queen Elizabeth's dress, in particular, looks as if it contains every frill and ornament existing in the 16th century. And the actors, many of whom play multiple parts, are equally at home with the comedy (both low and high) and are all extremely enjoyable to watch.

The Beard Of Avon has been extended through December 22nd and is largely sold out, so get your tickets now. For more information visit the Rep's website, www.seattlerep.org.

A Christmas Carol, as adapted by Gregory A. Falls with original music by Adam Stern, has been a staple of A Contemporary Theatre's season since 1976. As it has been two years since I last caught (and reviewed) the production, I figured it was time to revisit Dickens' holiday classic. While fully expecting to enjoy it, I figured it would be like watching a favorite holiday film on TV: pleasant and comfortable, but with few surprises. However, A Christmas Carol, with its timeless message of personal redemption through helping others, hit a little closer to home this year, perhaps due to recent events. It appears to have affected the cast as well, as they all play their parts closer to the vest and more subtly than in past productions. As a result, the show sheds its overplayed camp aspects and achieves a resonance I have not seen in past productions of A Christmas Carol at ACT or elsewhere.

ScroogeA great deal of this new resonance is due to Michael Morgan-Dunne's (pictured left) subtle portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge, one of the trickiest of parts to play with any sincerity. Scrooge just begs to be overplayed as a caricature, but in Morgan-Dunne's capable hands, Scrooge became a dark, self-contained individual who is truly as solitary as an oyster. It is not so much that Scrooge dislikes other people as that he has neither time nor patience for them, and thus can hardly be faulted for not being concerned about them. Thanks to Morgan-Dunne, Scrooge's redemption is organic and logical and actually brings a tear to the eye at the end of the play. The rest of the cast is equally strong and subdued, and thus create a well-honed ensemble, thanks in no small part to Kurt Beattie's strong direction.

A Christmas Carol runs through December 23rd at A Contemporary Theatre. (Please note that the part of Scrooge is alternated between Michael Morgan-Dunne and David Pichette). For more information, visit ACT's website: www.acttheatre.org

Meanwhile, another classic novel has been adapted for the stage. The 5th Avenue Theatre, in concert with Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota, has produced a new musical adaptation of Mark Twain's tale of mistaken identities, The Prince And The Pauper.

Before the performance, artistic director David Armstrong stated that it has long been 5th Avenue Theatre's tradition to present a family show during the holidays. And since, as he opined, they had already gone through the usual suspects, it was time to produce a new family show to add to the theatrical cannon. In that, The Prince and rhe Pauper succeeds admirably, as it is a throwback to the classic musical comedy book musicals of days gone by, with an emphasis more on performance and script than on technology or recitative. The score by Judd Woldin (Tony Award winner for Raisin) and Marc Elliot is pleasant and tuneful and the book by Ivan Menchell keeps the action tight and centered on the title characters.

The Prince and the Pauper
Asher Monroe Book and Marc Kudisch
Indeed, The Prince and the Pauper largely succeeds thanks to its titular stars, Asher Monroe Book (as the crown prince, Edward) and Cameron Bowen (as his 'identical' counterpart, the peasant Tom). Proving that it is, indeed, the clothes that make the man (or boy, in this case), the two swap clothes and learn what it is to walk in the other's shoes. For peasant-turned-prince Tom, that means dealing with a teenage fiancée, Lady Jane (the delightful Kaitlyn M. Davidson), an imposing monarch of a father, Henry VIII (Perry L. Brown), and the traditionally villainous chamberlain, Lord Hertford (played with smooth oiliness by Alan Coates, who gets one of the strongest and most enjoyable tunes of the show, the jazzy "Leave Everything To Me") and teaching the court to loosen up by turning the royal ball into a somersaulting evening of fun.

The prince-turned-pauper has a much harder row to hoe, as his new 'father' (Peter Lohnes) is of the old 'spare the rod' school of parenting and thinks he can beat out the new 'high faluting' airs his son has acquired. Toss in a mob of peasants out of a Frankenstein movie (or Beauty and the Beast) intent on seeing him hanged for claiming to be royalty, and poor Edward definitely got the short end of the trade. Luckily, he falls in with Miles Hendon, a closet coward who finds his courage in 100 proof increments. While using alcohol as humor went out with Annie (and indeed has even been cut out of subsequent productions of that family classic) Miles does provide a great deal of the humor in the show, as well as enough double entendres to make the adults happy (especially since Miles is played by Marc Kudisch with great sexy/comic effect).

While The Prince and the Pauper is not quite at the level to replace the great family musicals of yore, it is pleasant with enjoyable songs, strong performances, fantastic sets (G.W. Mercier) and gorgeous costumes (Nanette Acosta). The Prince and the Pauper runs through December 15th at the 5th Avenue Theatre before moving to St. Paul, Minnesota. For more information, visit www.5thavenuetheatre.org.


Photos: Chris Bennion




- Jonathan Frank



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