The Beard of Avon—who really wrote the plays attributed to the Bard?

The Beard of Avon—who really wrote the plays attributed to the Bard?

By Edith McCauley, Theater Critic

Playwright Amy Freed’s theory that the work of William Shakespeare might really be that of the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, and possibly Queen Elizabeth, sets the stage at the Goodman Theatre for one of the best plays seen there or anywhere. Her genius for using the language of the 15th century and adapting it to modern times produces a comedy of epic proportion.

The controversy surrounding Shakespeare’s writings has existed for centuries. How could a simple farmer from Avon write of historical events and places that he had never seen? Rob Campbell is the balding rustic desiring to become an actor, John Hemmings (Greg Vinkler) directs in a London theater and patiently explains to Will that “there are no small parts.” His explicit shows delight the masses, with Geoffrey Dunderbread (Ian Brennan) as leading lady and Craig Spidle (as Richard Burbage) as her counterpart. Will’s poetic comments contrast with the sexual dialogue of the actors.

Freed’s clever use of language begins with the title of the play. How can Bard be Beard? Mark Harlik in the role of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, explains. A beard provides cover for an author not willing to admit his true identity. Will becomes de Vere’s beard. Signing the work of the reprobate, out of favor in Elizabeth’s court, the farmer from Avon becomes the literary prodigy of the day. Harlik’s performance dominates the play. The Earl’s dissolute lifestyle with lovers male and female offends the Queen, and he is banished from court, but his poetry charms, and he returns.

Costumed stunningly, Ora Jones (as Queen Elizabeth), in the chalky make-up of the day, equals Harlik’s performance. A regal entry and sweeping gestures that quiet the court personify the character. Will becomes her “beard” and The Taming of the Shrew, her contribution, arrives on stage. Jones and Harlik play the scene from a box seat, with the audience captivated by her flair for comedy.

Anne Hathaway, Will’s wife, plays a major role. Hollis Resnik is a harping mate, unhappy with her fate and a husband who dreams only of becoming an actor. Following him to London in disguise, she deceives him easily as a “lady of the streets.” Freed’s ability to create situations and characters based on only the briefest of historical fact amazes.

Leaving the theater last week, we spoke of the quality of Chicago’s performance venues and the work mounted there. The Goodman is only one example of the richness of that community. Their new theater incorporates state-of-the-art technical equipment, designers, costumers, and technicians combined with an artistic staff whose talents produce the finest of productions. The Beard of Avon exemplifies that creative energy. Michael Yeargan’s scenic design soars to the rafters with details beautifully done. The trunk, center-left, which contains de Vere’s plays, remains there throughout the evening. Will carries it away in the final scene. We know he will improve its contents.

The originality of The Beard of Avon gives us thoughtful consideration of assumed historical fact. On Saturday, November 2 at 10 a.m. as a part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, The Bard or Not the Bard—That is the Question will feature leading Chicago judges and lawyers addressing the conundrum—who is the true author of Shakespeare’s canon? Edward de Vere’s counsel will argue that the man from Avon had neither the brains nor talent equal to that of the “real” author.

The Beard of Avon plays through November 2. A completely delightful and entertaining piece, it may be the hit of the season. Ticket information—(312) 443-3800.

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