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3 out of 4 stars

Title
The Beard of Avon
Written by
Amy Freed
Directed by
David Storch
Actors
Michael Spencer-Davis, Stephen Ouimette
Company
Canadian Stage
Venue
The St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts
City
Toronto
Year
2002

Amy Freed's The Beard of Avon is tromping over very familiar territory and as the thees and thous started flying across the stage of the Bluma Appel Theatre at Thursday's opening of the U.S. play's Canadian premiere, anyone allergic to the low Shakespearean spoof could be forgiven for sighing heavily. Methinks there's a long evening ahead.

Yet if Freed's script is often predictable and her satire uneven, her concept is clever enough and her execution charming enough to earn her a respectable showing in a field crowded with such post-modern probing of Shakespeare's inspiration as Ann-Marie MacDonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet); Timothy Findley's Elizabeth Rex and, of course, the movie Shakespeare in Love. In short, there's good entertainment on offer in this CanStage production.

That clever concept, which may give a bit of comfort to the so-called Oxfordians, is to speculate dramatically that Shakespeare's plays really were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as these conspiracy theorists claim. Freed imagines Shakespeare (Michael Spencer-Davis) as a naive country boy with a talent for rhymes, an unhappy marriage to Anne Hathaway (Gina Wilkinson), and a yearning for something better. When a troupe of players breezes through Stratford, he gets the bug and follows them to London, where he gets hired for some walk-on parts in the players' bawdy comedies. Coincidentally, the debauched wit Edward de Vere (Stephen Ouimette) is looking for some way to get his much finer plays produced without debasing his aristocratic self, and hits on the idea of using this bumpkin Shakespeare as his "beard." You can guess what begins to happen.

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But as it does happen, as Shakespeare finds his voice adding in the soliloquies or refreshing de Vere's pen so that he can once again write sonnets for his lover, the beauteous young Henry Wriothesley (Graeme Somerville), Freed's fancy takes flight, lifting an audience along with it. The tortured pseudo Shakespearean phrasing -- "Blame not me"; "Mix not metaphor in such a fashion" -- settles into a less self-conscious juxtaposition of the contemporary and the archaic: "I see a hunchback; you flesh it out," are de Vere's instructions on Richard III. Now, the delight of finding Shakespearean plots scattered around the Elizabethan court sustains an enterprise that is further enlivened by running jokes about theatre people and their conventions.

Director David Storch, better known in these parts as an actor in shows such as The Lonesome West and Angels in America, is technically adept, but needs occasionally to reign in farcical impulses that threaten to rent the Shakespearean fabric. Specifically, both Wilkinson's hooting and hollering in the role of Anne Hathaway, and Brenda Robins lusty gyrations in an otherwise upright Elizabeth I, are oddly disruptive. And costume designer Susan Benson's unremarkable Elizabethan scheme is severely marred by the ludicrous hot-pink hose and doublet with which she has saddled Somerville's Wriothesley. They clash horribly with his very intentions as an actor, which are to deliver an admirably restrained version of the preening pretty boy, refusing to reduce the character to mere camp.

It's that kind of intelligent balance that is crucial if Freed's instincts to settle for the obvious are not going to overshadow her much smarter humour and, of course, when it comes to perfectly weighting the comedy, one is in the hands of a master in the person of Ouimette. His de Vere produces lovely flashes of melancholic self-absorption beneath the boisterious and bullying facade. Eric Peterson also does his bit, scampering about delightfully in roles that range from the crude rustic Colin to the formidable Sir Francis Walsingham.

And the moon-faced Spencer-Davis, always a dependable comedian in parts that call for aggrieved innocence, rises buoyantly to the lead role, successfully upholding the key whimsy here, that Shakespeare is a barely literate nerd. How could a country boy with a few years of grammar school education have produced the most magnificent poetry in the English language, the Oxfordians ask. In Freed's admittedly silly universe, Spencer-Davis does make the question less than rhetorical as he charts the awakening of a natural talent.

The Beard of Avon continues in Toronto to Dec. 14. For information call: 416-368-3110.

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