Ken Howard/SCRPlaywright Amy Freed is rightly admired for the deep research and detailed recapitulation of the dialogue and speech patterns of Elizabethan England in her rollicking new play, The Beard of Avon,at South Coast Repertory.
But it's doubtful that anyone will like this play more than Freed herself. She fell madly in love with the subject matter and milieu, she says, and that love shows in her comedic re-imagining of that great literary debate: Who was William Shakespeare and did he really write those plays? More than anything The Beard of Avonis a love letter to Shakespeare, his world and his words.
But for those of us who may not carry a torch so bright, The Beard of Avoncould be a tough sell. It's too long by at least 15 minutes; too in love with itself; and too filled with theatrical in-jokes and arcane references to Shakespeare to really connect with audiences that aren't Bardophiles or Theaterophiles. We learn a |lot about William Shakespeare—a rustic possessed of a savant's instinct for rhyme—and many of his contemporaries, most notably Edward De Vere, the perverse aristocrat who, in Freed's play, spun many of the ideas that the aforementioned Shakespeare wove into poetic gold. But it's hard to really care about these characters—or even this story—unless you already know the difference between Titus Andronicusand Timon of Athensor understand why a King Learin which a will is read throughout the play is funny.
Director David Emmes doesn't seem too interested in pushing the material in any particular direction. He keeps things light, which is fine for the genuinely funny moments, but it prevents Freed's most poignant passages to really register. The cast is uniformly excellent, but with such names as Douglas Weston (Shakespeare), Mark Harelik (de Vere), Rene Augesen (Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's spurned wife) and a host of others, it had better be excellent.
Although entertaining, this isn't a wholly engaging play—yet. But it is a major production of a new play from a wickedly talented playwright who can write as well as any of her contemporaries. I'm withholding final judgment until I read the play. The Beard of Avon may make more sense on the page than the stage, which doesn't sound a lot different from the man—or men or whoever—who wrote the plays Freed so adores.
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The Beard of Avon at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through July 1. $22-$49.