THE BEARD OF AVON
Seattle Center, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 443-2222, $10-$44 7:30 p.m. Tues.-Sun.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.-Sun. ends Sat., Dec. 22
EVEN GENIUSES can't get a break. William Shakespeare may be recognized as the world's greatest playwright, but for centuries, scholars have debated whether the works were actually written by him. In The Beard of Avon, Amy Freed's mischievous contemplation of "The Authorship Question," a dim but gifted young Bard becomes a "beard," a front for the stifled artistic ambitions of the era's other celebrated personages. Even Queen Elizabeth I gets in on the action, forcing him to put his name on her version of The Taming of the Shrew, the Freudian result of the virgin monarch's libidinal frustrations ("Go get it if you can!" she howls to the women in the audience at the play's premiere).
Freed displays again with Beard a knack for the kind of spoofy celebration so prominent in The Psychic Life of Savages, her earlier take on the flamboyant downslides of mid-20th-century American poets. She both sends up and empathetically embraces the driving passions behind art and artifice, and reflects on the love of language that can be used to simultaneously surmount private pain and hide from it.
Unfortunately, director Sharon Ott just isn't nimble enough to run with Freed's punchy, fleet-footed irreverence in her Seattle Rep production. The show feels fussy and overstuffed right where you want it to be freewheeling. Purposefully self-conscious wordplay—anachronistic meshes of Elizabethan phrasing with modern slang like "shithead"—grows tiresome because Ott gives you too much time to notice it: The script's Marx Brothers-like playfulness moves here at a leaden pace. Ott also doesn't seem to know where to go with Freed's deeper concerns; the bond that develops between Will (amiable Dan Donohoe) and his bisexual mentor Edward De Vere (Laurence Ballard) passes without the heartbreak that should accompany it. This is partially the playwright's fault—the script could use some cutting—but if Freed is beguiled by her own capacity for language, she has good reason, and the indulgence could be a part of the fun in the right production.
This just isn't that production, despite some laughs from a top-drawer cast. Lori Larsen (perfect as a boozy Anne Sexton in The Empty Space's Savages staging) radiates barely controlled hysteria as the Queen, and Ballard—better and better with each comic turn—squeezes something touching out of his rapacious De Vere. There isn't a false note, in fact, in any of the sterling supporting performances. But they're left managing for themselves in a world that hasn't been fully considered. It's one more bad break for the Bard.