Produced by: Pear Theatre
Directed by: Karen Altree Piemme
Featuring: Dante Belletti as Will Shakspere, Michael Champlin as Edward De Vere, Caitlin Papp as Anne Hathaway, and Doll Piccotto as Queen Elizabeth I. Also, Nicolae Muntean, Evan Michael Schumacher, Brian Flegel, Jeremy Ryan, and Jason Pollak
Running time: 165 minutes, one intermission
When: April 7 Through April 24, 2016
Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida Street, Mountain View
Tickets: $10-$35 (savings available). Visit www.thepear.org or call 1-650-254-1148
with 'The Beard of Avon'
lacks polish, but is still clever and amusing
Opening night of "The Beard of Avon" at The Pear Theatre was like going to a gemologist's shop and watching a clerk empty a bag of rocks and gems on the counter.
Here and there, a cut and polished diamond, an emerald. But, also, some plain old rocks, and maybe even some chunks of broken concrete, from when the city came and took out the sidewalk.
I've never before seen Amy Freed's farce about the authorship of William Shakespeare's plays, and while I can guess that it could be smoothly and humorously presented, this production, directed by Karen Altree Piemme, was slow, clunky and rough-edged in the first act, although slightly smoother and more fun in the second act.
A key fault is that there are so many scene changes that the script may be more suited to the cinema than the stage.
Several lines of dialogue in Shakespeare's bedroom, then the cast rushes out in dim lights and rearranges things to make it Edward de Vere's bedroom. A bit of dialogue, then dim the lights and everybody rushes out to change it back into Shakespeare's bedroom.
There is so much furniture moving in this production that the cast, who do all the work, must be exhausted after the show's two hours and 45 minutes. But, they will all be well-prepared for jobs at Bekins Moving and Storage.
And some of the production choices are inexplicable. Chief among them, the bald cap worn by Dante Belletti, a very good actor who plays Will Shakespeare.
We've all seen drawings and paintings of the playwright, which show him at least with a very high forehead, and some, apparently, with hair only on the sides and very back of his head.
In this production, a good joke is that Shakespeare has a kind of comb-over, with hanks of his hair criss-crossed over his head like a lattice-work pie.
But the bald cap under the comb-over is glaringly gray, not remotely a color near to the color of Belletti's skin.
Why do that? That Will might have tried a comb-over is funny. That he might of worn a gray bald cap has no meaning at all, in any context.
And, there is the fully modern guitar, with chrome-plated tuning pegs, held by an actor supposedly in Elizabethan times, that is seldom if ever actually played. What's the point of having a guitar in the scene if it's not really used, and not remotely antique? Somebody could have gone over to Gryphon Strings in Palo Alto and rented an old guitar with wooden tuning pegs without too much trouble.
On the other hand, Belletti seems fully committed to his part, and delivers his dialogue filled with poetry and Elizabethan imagery with panache.
Michael Champlin is excellent as de Vere, who loves to write, but is, perhaps, too bloody and violent a person to fully polish his poetry, which is part of why he uses Shakespeare as his "beard," the person who presents his work as his own.
It is a fun joke to Shakespeare scholars that the first play de Vere offers to Shakespeare is "Titus Andronicus," which was so horribly violent that theater companies for hundreds of years refused to stage it. (See Julie Taymor's 1999 film, "Titus," starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, because it is freakin' amazing.)
For Shakespearians, the scene of the Elizabethan actors rehearsing "Titus Andronicus" has several fine jokes.
Doll Piccotto, who is always wonderful to watch, is excellent as Queen Elizabeth.
The main plot (if we may be so bold as to guess) is that Will, who has been unhappy living at the farm with Anne Hathaway, runs away with a troupe of disreputable actors to London, where he is a terrible actor, but somehow is found to be a pretty good writer.
De Vere, who is Lord Oxford and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, hires Will to put his name on de Vere's plays, but eventually Shakespeare becomes more of a partner. "I see a hunchback. You flesh it out," de Vere supposedly tells him. And, "How did you ever come up with Juliet? All I had was Mercutio."
Toward the end of Act II, every major courtier to the queen, and the queen herself, want Shakespeare to rewrite their plays, which solves one of the ancient questions about Shakespeare how did he write so many plays, in so short a time? An in-joke for Shakespeare scholars comes up when someone is describing the characteristics of Will's writing, and includes "The unexpected use of fishing terms."
Piccotto, as the queen, sits in the front row and is hilarious as she responds to Shakespeare's changes to the play she "wrote," "The Taming of the Shrew." Piccotto, who knows her Shakespeare and therefore knows her Queen Elizabeth, was an inspired choice for the role.
Caitlin Lawrence Papp was great fun as Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, especially in the second act. While such a woman did exist, Freed makes up pretty much everything she does in this play. It is kind of fun, also kind of silly, and certainly bawdy.
Jason Pollak, a junior at Palo Alto High School, was an audience favorite in his three roles, including two where he appeared as a woman. In Shakespeare's day, boys or young effeminate-looking men played all the women's parts. (Yes, Juliet would have been played by a boy.)
He has a fun scene with Shakespeare, who doesn't yet know he's a boy, and who tells him "You remind me of a woman I loved once, but I married her and haven't seen her since." (I may not have every word of that quote correct; a script was not available to me.)
Nicolae Muntean, Brain Flegel, Jeremy Ryan, and Evan Kokkila Schumacher round out the cast.
It is not a small triumph that everybody manages a decent British accent, which has not always been the case at The Pear. And much of Freed's dialogue is quite fun. Anne Hathaway complains that her husband "Lies not with me, but lies to me." It was a time of fun with word play.
Lots of other good, funny puns and jokes, including a killer pun in the second act that drew huge laughter, which I will not give away here.
Paulino Deleal is responsible for the versatile set design; pity so many of the pieces looked so heavy and had to be moved so much. Trish Files' costume design was excellent, except for that bald cap. The clothing was very much of the time. Caroline Clark's sound design was full of surprises, including fart noises; she is the one, I am told, who selected the interstitial music, which was string quartet arrangements of modern pop tunes, which oddly fit the Elizabethan era. The version of Lorde's "Royals" was an inspired choice. It was the Vitamin String Quartet, which has a website at http://www.vitaminstringquartet.com.
I liked that Anne Hathaway heats the wine for de Vere (although she did it in an inefficient and unlikely way), which is a fine detail of how wine was served in Elizabethan times.
But, no rushes on the floor, although they are mentioned once in dialogue. Fire hazard and a mess, I suppose.
Email John Orr at email@example.com