"The Beard of Avon," Pear Theatre's latest offering, is a splendid, hilarious take on William Shakespeare and the ongoing questions regarding the authorship of his canon. Brainy and bawdy in equal measure, it's one of the must-see productions of the season.
Will Shakspere (Dante Belletti) of rural Stratford-upon-Avon has a natural genius for poetry, incredible emotional sensitivity and big dreams of life on the stage. However, he's also prematurely bald, barely literate, impoverished and stuck in the boonies with a fraught marriage to his weary, promiscuous wife Anne (Caitlin Papp). Meanwhile, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Michael Champlin), has led a glamorous life of luxury and debauchery and is a favorite of Queen Elizabeth (Doll Piccotto), but what he really loves is writing. His secret, unpublished work is full of interesting storylines but lacking in warmth and human touch. His high-ranking court position also precludes him from being able to openly hobnob in the lowbrow theater world other than as a patron.
So we have diamond-in-the-rough Will and rough-in-the-diamond Oxford both wishing they could work their ways onto the stage. Oxford has the literary know-how and plot points; Will has the wordplay and warmth that can make language sing. Can the two join forces (with a quick name change to the grander-sounding "Shakespeare") and form a partnership that may provide the English-speaking world with its greatest works of literature? You know that they say: When there's a Will, there's a way.
"The Beard of Avon" was written by a local -- Amy Freed, artist in residence in Stanford University's Theater and Performance Studies Department. She's based the play on the real-life debate over attribution of Shakespeare's oeuvre. Was the Bard, in fact, someone's "beard?" To this day, many believe an uneducated country bumpkin like Shakespeare could never have come up with the rich, sophisticated, immortal works of literature that bear his name. Proponents of the so-called Oxfordian theory of authorship argue that de Vere had the right qualifications, connections and skills, but there have also been many other candidates put forward, including the Virgin Queen herself.
Freed manages to cleverly interweave and lend credence to many of these theories while also appreciating Shakespeare's own innate genius, and does so with a brilliant, madcap script that mixes in Shakespearean references and tropes (disguising one's identity, for instance), pseudo-Elizabethan language style and modern theater terms.
Ye olde work inbox, for example, is called an "incoming bucket," while spotlight-stealing Will is told not to "pull focus." A character known for his homosexual leanings is told, after seducing a woman, "But you liketh not even girls!" Will's first on-stage role is as a "spear shaker." Yep, he literally shakes a spear. It's silly stuff, and gloriously so, with the right blend of phallic humor and witty wordplay. Sticklers for historical accuracy will no doubt find much to quibble with, but Freed's play is all in good fun rather than purporting to be any kind of scholarly commentary. Suspend disbelief and just enjoy the buffoonery; one must assume the Bard himself would have. Comparisons to the Oscar-winning film "Shakespeare in Love," by playwright Tom Stoppard, are inevitable and apt.
The Pear Theatre's version of "Beard," skillfully directed by Karen Altree Piemme, more than does justice to Freed -- and the Bard -- with this production. The cast is across-the-board excellent, with many members tackling multiple roles, including wonderfully talented Palo Alto High School junior Jason Pollack, who takes on three parts.
Champlin makes the murderous, gleefully depraved Oxford, who cannot express emotion, a nevertheless entirely appealing and loveable rogue. Belletti's Will is naive and earnest -- so heartfelt in his pure enthusiasm for language and stagecraft -- and his facial expressions and reactions are priceless. Papp's put-upon Anne Hathaway, aka Mrs. Shakspere, is a relatable and warmhearted spin on the real-life figure about whom little is known. Here, she's a proto-feminist and not afraid to speak up for herself while also loving her difficult hubby.
And though Piccotto's Queen Elizabeth isn't in many scenes, she stands out in the fun and juicy role of a purportedly virgin sovereign who's above earthly concerns but is really a mortal woman in search of pleasure, romance and connection, just like anyone. (She, in fact, may have written a little something we know as "The Taming of the Shrew.")
The play's structure and Paulino Deleal's set design make for a lot of scenery and prop changes. There were unusually long pauses between scenes, adding length to a show that's already pretty long. However, while this may be smoothed out in future performances, it's not necessarily entirely negative. Since it is a show about show business ("all the world's a stage," after all), it's fitting to see some of the behind-the-scenes action. Plus, the incidental music, orchestral-string renditions of pop hits (think Huey Lewis, Nirvana, Lorde), makes for amusing listening.
Though Shakespeare died 400 years ago this month, his work (or rather, the work published under his name) continues to inspire, intrigue and delight. Pear's "The Beard of Avon" is a worthy addition to the greater Shakespearean galaxy. Play on!
What: "The Beard of Avon"
When: Through April 24, Thursday - Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.
Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View.
Cost: Tickets are $30/$25 for seniors and students.
Info: Go to The Pear.