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Finding Her Muse Amusing

After plays that were akin to 'opening a vein,' Amy Freed reveled in writing a romp.

May 27, 2001|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm is a Times staff writer

Tears filled Amy Freed's eyes, her throat seemed to tighten and she sniffled once as she sat in an empty rehearsal room and talked about her new play, "The Beard of Avon."

As a man from Stratford-on-Avon once wrote (although, as we shall see, in certain literary quarters that is a matter of intense dispute), "parting is such sweet sorrow."

Yes, Freed, who had just finished her last rewrites and was about to head home to San Francisco, was having a Shakespearean moment as she prepared to let the most beloved of her brainchildren make its way into the world. The play, a highly speculative frolic through the life of William Shakespeare, has its premiere this week on South Coast Repertory's main stage in Costa Mesa.

From the early signs, the theater gods seem to be smiling even as Freed weeps bittersweetly. Five theaters already have snapped up "The Beard of Avon" for next season, among them San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, the Seattle Repertory Theatre and Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

"I've never taken so much pleasure in a play," said Freed, 43, whose career, though not yet in orbit, has had a promising launch.

In 1995, "The Psychic Life of Savages," a literary fantasia based on the lives of doomed poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, won the Joseph Kesselring Award for emerging playwrights--an honor previously bestowed on Tony Kushner, Howard Korder and Anna Deavere Smith.

In 1997, South Coast commissioned and staged Freed's follow-up work, "Freedomland," a funny but unsettling account of a strange, messed-up family. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1999.

Those laurels came at some emotional cost, Freed says. "Plays like 'Freedomland' are excruciating because they come from inward and personal material, and it's like opening a vein."

Not so "The Beard of Avon."

"It's been just giddy and fun, and I've loved it," she said. "I was just in love with the world of it, and I don't want to leave."

Freed's joyful interlude with "The Beard" began about three years ago. She was again in the throes of painful creation, trying to write one of those vein-tapping relationship plays, tentatively called "My Bastard." She was struggling, she said, because after the close-to-the-bone "Freedomland," she wasn't ready to be absorbed again in the inner world of what she calls "my own unknowns."

Her rescuer was an old friend interested in conspiracy theories. He raised the Authorship Question: Did a poorly educated English rustic named Will Shakespeare really write the greatest body of verse and drama in Western civilization? Or was William Shakespeare just a front for one or more of the refined men of the time, nobles of great learning and experience who penned the plays but claimed not the credit?

Dabbling in the rude, rough, disreputable world of the Elizabethan theater was considered below the station of the well-born. So, as the iconoclasts and conspiracy theorists would have it, such erudite, worldly courtiers as Francis Bacon or Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, wrote the plays and used that common actor fellow, Shakespeare, for cover.

Freed dived into her research, envisioning a play about scholars and conspiracy cranks obsessed with the question. But as she read, the Elizabethan stage itself drew her in, and soon it alone became her subject.

Freed is adept at assimilating and parodying the styles of literary heroes in her plays. Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson figured as protagonists in two of her early works. In "The Psychic Life of Savages," she wrote verse that cavorted with the poetic styles and sensibilities of Plath, Sexton, Ted Hughes and Robert Lowell, the templates for the play's main characters.

With "The Beard of Avon" she is at it again, often in iambic pentameter. The play is both a sendup and a loving appreciation of a world in which almost everybody is drunk with words and stories and the enchantment of language as a bouquet and a plaything.

"The Beard" also celebrates and pokes fun at the conventions and foibles of the theater--not just the Elizabethan stage, but today's.

For the devout Shakespearean, the second act contains an elaborate, play-within-a-play spoof of "The Taming of the Shrew" in which all the vexing conundrums of that "problem" play are wryly unraveled.

One thing "The Beard of Avon" is not is a serious foray into the issues of the Authorship Question. Freed said that she made sure to immerse herself in all the controversies, then pretty much set all that erudition aside so she could write an entertaining play with Shakespeare, his wife, Anne Hathaway, Queen Elizabeth and De Vere as central characters.

There is one serious current that she hopes will emerge: that great artists are not born, but made through heroic acts of will.

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