Thursday, January 24, 2008

Bawd, Beard, Bard

Ooh, I've fallen behind on my blogging. I saw The Beard of Avon at Portland Center Stage on Tuesday the 15th--now it's the 24th and I'm up to my ears in stuff at Vassar, though it's only the beginning of the semester.

Thoughts on the play before it vanishes from my memory:

I was so excited when I heard that Darius Pierce was going to play Will Shakspere (yes, that's how it spelled). I had a great time working with him last summer on Marie Antoinette and seeing him play King Louis XVI as a put-upon, insecure "little guy." And that's just the way that Shakspere is in Amy Freed's play--not a lofty historical figure, but a provincial farmer who comes to London, his eyes as shiny as his bald pate (but don't mention that to him, he's very self-conscious about it). Darius is very funny but also very sympathetic in these underdog roles. Maybe it's because I'm a writer myself, but I really feel for Shakspere in The Beard of Avon--the little guy with big dreams. The moral of the play, if you will, is "Everything from nothing comes to those who love"--and Shakspere loves. He is, literally, an amateur.

And this isn't the kind of love found in Shakespeare in Love, either--where he only needs a good woman to make his pen start flowing again (how's that for a double entendre?). Writing is never that easy, and The Beard of Avon recognizes that--the struggle to put one's thoughts down on paper, and then, the struggle to see them produced.

Speaking of Shakespeare in Love, Brian Thompson, playing Henry Condel, looks so much like Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe that it had to have been intentional. (Henslowe and Condel were both theater managers of the time.)

The play has lots of fun with language, written in mock-Elizabethan style, and sometimes it goes by too fast--you want to savor the way the words sound and the jokes are constructed. Most of the Shakespeare allusions got laughs, but I was disappointed to be the only person in the entire theater who laughed at "Wilt thou assault me with dramaturgy?" (Maybe it would help if more people knew what a dramaturg does.)

Really, The Beard of Avon is a strong comedy script--using language in interesting ways, amusing you but making you think about things like the creative process, and inspiring at least some members of the audience (i.e. my dad) to want to learn more about Shakespeare. Still, I am bothered by some flaws and inconsistencies: Shakspere is the smartest guy in Stratford but the dumbest guy in London. When Lord Edward De Vere first presents his "beard" scheme to the theater managers (noblemen can't be professional playwrights, so De Vere will find another name to put on his scripts), Shakspere at first seems to catch on quickly. He calls himself "Honest Will Shakspere... trustworthy-to-death Will Shakspere!" as if positioning himself to be chosen as the beard. But two minutes later, he is so dense that De Vere must explain the scheme to him in great detail. It seems like Amy Freed wants to cram in as many jokes as possible, riffing on both the "Shakspere is a frustrated genius!" idea and the "Shakspere is a silly country bumpkin!" idea, but you can't have it both ways.

It was nice to see Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors Catherine Lynn Davis, Ken Albers, and Brent Harris in this Shakespeare-inspired comedy...and after all Portland Center Stage started as an outgrowth of OSF. Davis is funny as Shakspere's put-upon wife, Anne Hathaway, who, in a scene right out of a Shakespeare mistaken-identity comedy, pretends to be a prostitute so that her husband will finally pay attention to her. Albers takes on some smaller roles like another theater manager, Heminge. And Harris plays Edward De Vere, the archetypal world-weary, debauched nobleman. Great fun!

I thought Carol Halstead's British accent was a little too much as Queen Elizabeth, but she has some great scenes where she writes The Taming of the Shrew and then watches it performed (and what a delicious idea on Amy Freed's part! Of course Elizabeth would identify with Kate!). And although it would have been nice to be able to see Twelfth Night, which is playing in repertory with Beard at PCS, I've already seen some great productions of Twelfth Night in my life. So I'm glad I got introduced to a new comedy by this great set of actors, instead.

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