THE BEARD OF AVON by Amy Freed, directed by David Storch, with Michael Spencer-Davis, Stephen Ouimette, Gina Wilkinson, Neil Foster, Brenda Robins and Graeme Somerville. Presented by CanStage at the Bluma Appel (27 Front East). To December 14, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $20-$75, some rush and Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Was William Shakespeare a genius or, as Amy Freed slyly suggests in The Beard Of Avon, a beard -- that is, a front -- for another artist?After centuries of questions about the authorship of works generally attributed to the Bard, Freed's come up with a clever comedy that has Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, writing many of the plays and -- since the nobility couldn't be involved in lower-class playhouse entertainments -- using a simple Stratford man as his cover.
Freed just doesn't know when to stop, though. There's a good 90-minute piece in this near-three-hour pseudo-Elizabethan-language show, handicapped by too many extraneous in-jokes, forced contemporary references and a broad, low-comedy style pushed too far by director David Storch.
This production shines in its players rather than the overwritten play. Brenda Robins commands the stage as Queen Elizabeth -- in a series of stunning outfits by Susan Benson, who's copied royal portraits of the period. Her queen keeps her randiness under wraps in a fawning court that boasts more crypto-bards than crypto-Catholics. Gina Wilkinson as Shakespeare's wife, Anne, gets lots of comic mileage out of her disguise when she follows her husband to London, though her Avon scenes are sometimes forced.
Michael Spencer-Davis finally gets the featured role he deserves as the ingenuous Shakespeare (originally Shakspere), a drama-besotted innocent who's occasionally touched by the Muse and who grows into a man of the theatre.
Best of all is Stephen Ouimette -- has his acting ever failed to impress? -- as Oxford, an omnivorously sexual wit whose family motto requires him to carry out all manner of happiness-destroying evil deeds.
With superb comic timing and unflagging energy, Ouimette is the engine that drives this production forward.