In the nicest way, Amy Freed's sparkling new comedy "The Beard of Avon" is the "JFK" of its chosen milieu: Elizabethan England in the time of William Shakespeare.
Freed answers her central question--"Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?"--by opening an overstuffed rucksack of conspiracy theories. In particular, she toys with the one favored by the Oxfordians in this ongoing authorship debate: That only Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, had the schooling, the travel and the insights to claim the Shakespearean canon for his own. But what if a case of simple deception, a country bumpkin bearding for a man of the court, became more complicated?
Another, non-Oliver Stone movie comes to mind here: "Shakespeare in Love," co-authored by Tom Stoppard. Similar themes, to be sure, with similarly antic approaches. Both trade in a mixture of theater jokes, court intrigue and the occasional modern-day slang.
Yet in the end, Freed's silly streak is wholly American. "The Beard of Avon," now receiving its world premiere at the commissioning South Coast Repertory, starts chasing its own tail midway through Act 2, in search of a satisfying conclusion. En route, however, much of it is wonderfully clever, in cleverly layered ways.
When first we meet one "Will Shakspere" (Douglas Weston), he is a simple Stratford farmer, disinclined toward his duties and his wife, Anne Hathaway (Rene Augesen). He burns for adventure, for poetry and drama. "I have great . . . thought-like 'things' within my head," he says.
A traveling theatrical troupe raises the battling couple's spirits and alters Will's destiny. He leaves his old life behind, goes to London and becomes an unpaid "spear-shaker." Shakspere becomes Shakespeare.
Meanwhile, the melancholy Edward de Vere (Mark Harelik, in a delicious turn) has a trunkful of plays he dare not circulate, lest he lose favor in the court of Queen Elizabeth (Nike Doukas). Fate brings De Vere and Shakespeare together. Will agrees to become De Vere's front-man. The deception gradually becomes a collaboration. The Stratford hick has some talent after all.
Like so many of Shakespeare's heroines, Anne disguises herself in male drag. Once in London, she re-disguises herself as a common slut and becomes the mistress of wayward Will, who does not realize with whom he's dallying.
The dissolute rake De Vere, it turns out, isn't the only courtier with a yen for the stage. The queen herself has a little something called "The Taming of a Shrew" she wants performed, only the ending needs work. . . .
As does the ending of "The Beard of Avon." Rhythmically, the play stumbles after the "Shrew" performance. And if we're to be touched by the coda, a tavern sequence (shades of "Henry IV") featuring Shakespeare's colleague and de facto competitor Ben Jonson (Don Took), the play's mixture of silliness and sadness needs another shake or two.
Freed, whose earlier play "Freedomland" had a similar, off-kilter buoyancy to it, isn't afraid of the cheap anachronism ("Oh, wow"). The good ones are worth the effort, as when Anne waxes enthusiastic after seeing the strolling players: "I was moved to tears as well as laughter. One word--wonderful. It did divert, methought. One should run, never walk to see it whilst one still haveth the chance."
Freed garners many laughs by placing modern-day rehearsal concerns into the mouths of her Elizabethan characters, including Queen Elizabeth. "How now! Assaulteth me with dramaturgy?" she says, upon hearing advice from Shakespeare.
Director David Emmes' production doesn't shtick things up, which is wise, although by playing things so earnestly, some of the wit is muffled. This goes for Weston's Shakespeare as well. Harelik is wonderful as De Vere. Doukas reeks of divine righteousness as Queen E., and Robert Curtis Brown shines as a variety of polished weasels.
Freed can't quite bring off the darkening of the palette near the end, with the demise of De Vere and Will's return to Stratford. Even if she manages a proper 10-minute trim, her artfully crazy way with the language won't be for all tastes. Me, I'm a fan. The play already has major follow-up productions lined up in San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago.
It's heartening to see it here first.
* "The Beard of Avon," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Ends July 1. $28-$49. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Douglas Weston: William Shakespeare
Richard Doyle: Old Colin, Richard Burbage, Sir Francis Walsingham
Rene Augesen: Anne Hathaway
Lynsey McLeod: Geoff Dunderbread, Lady Lettice
Mark Coyan: Michael Drayton
Jessica Stevenson: Ensemble
Robert Curtis Brown: Henry Condell, Walter Fitch, Sir Francis Bacon
Don Took: John Heminge, Lord Burghley, Ben Jonson
Mark Harelik: Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford
Todd Lowe: Henry Wriothesley, earl of Derby
Nike Doukas: Elizabeth, Queen of England
Written by Amy Freed. Directed by David Emmes. Scenic design by Christopher Acebo. Costumes by Walker Hicklin. Lighting by Chris Parry. Sound by B.C. Keller. Choreographer Art Manke. Production manager Tom Aberger.