WAS IT REALLY an uneducated country boy who wrote the greatest body of work in the English language? Was it playwright Christopher Marlowe? Or perhaps Queen Elizabeth herself, or one of her courtiers? Google the topic of Shakespearean authorship, and you'll find dozens of blogs on the subject, including one by the Rorschach Theatre (http://rorschachtheatre.blogspot.com).
That's appropriate, as the scrappy theater company is mounting a production of Amy Freed's 2001 play "The Beard of Avon," a comedy that fleshes out a what-if scenario in tribute to and parody of the Bard's works -- whoever wrote them. The witty, poetic and bawdy script by Freed, a San Francisco-based playwright and past Pulitzer finalist, is a rogue's gallery of Ye Olde English, outlandish costumes, slapstick and lots of ribald humor. The Rorschach blog has photos from the production, plus essays by actors and director Jessica Burgess.
"Beard" tells the story of an illiterate bumpkin named William Shakspere (Grady Weatherford), who abandons his wife in Stratford to join a theater company in London. Meanwhile, the Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere (Eric Singdahlson), has a trunkful of scripts he's afraid to publish because it's unseemly for an earl to fraternize with actors. When De Vere's young lover, Henry Wriothesley ("the beautiful and effeminate Third Earl of Southampton," played by Brent Stansell), persuades him to show his latest effort, "Titus Andronicus," to a local theater company, De Vere recruits Shakspere to sign his name to it, replacing Will's "odoriferous" surname with a more elegant nom de plume. Meanwhile, Will's jilted wife (Valerie Fenton) goes to London to win him back, and man-hungry Queen Elizabeth (Wendy Wilmer) and her fawning courtiers stake rival claims to literary fame.
It's a veritable who's who of Elizabethan luminaries, from Francis Bacon to Richard Burbage, from John Heminge (Scott McCormick) to Henry Condell (Patrick Bussink) -- the latter pair helped prepare the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays for publication. But "Beard" isn't just for history and lit buffs, says Randy Baker, Rorschach's co-artistic director. "This show is broad, bawdy and fun, but it's also cerebral," he says. "If you're a Shakespeare expert, it's a fantastic experience, but even if you're not, it's still a lot of fun."
Stansell adds that there's a great deal of humanity in "Beard," just as there is in Shakespeare's plays, as well as a kind of warmth that, in Freed's imagining, is a contribution the simpleton Shakspere brings to De Vere's scripts.
The two men, collaborators and eventual co-authors, are very different in temperament, with De Vere having a "dark side," as Singdahlson puts it, without being a "single-layered character. . . . He's got some vulnerability."
Freed's Shakspere, for his part, is a bumbler, but one filled with emotion and poetry. In one scene, he is told that the character he plays in "Titus" must remain stone-faced at the sight of a "crimson river of warm blood" from Lavinia's injuries. He asks De Vere: "Could any huntsman look on such a spectacle unmoved? . . . I crave but a reason that he may in good conscience stand stock-still as you would have me!"
In the end, Freed finds a sunny -- and plausible -- explanation to the authorship question: There was no one man responsible for Shakespeare's plays. For any stage achievement, by definition, is never the achievement of one person. "That's what theater is," Baker says. "You have a script, then you get all the actors and designers and everyone else together. It's inspired collaboration."