To a question literary detectives love to chew on -- who really wrote the plays of Shakespeare? -- the playwright Amy Freed offers a delightfully unscholarly answer: Everybody!
In "The Beard of Avon," brought to Washington with charming, cheeky gusto by Rorschach Theatre, it is Freed's risible premise that the Bard was a bumpkin and his name appropriated as a nom de plume for half of England's aristocracy. Being identified with the theater, you see, was beneath the gentlefolk, and Shakespeare -- for Freed's purposes, a simple, star-struck, obsequious softie by the name of Will Shakspere -- became their dependable front man.
Even the queen wanted to get in on the act. In "The Beard of Avon," she's the not-so-secret author of "The Taming of A [sic] Shrew," and so overcome by the mounting of her handiwork on the London stage that when Petruchio gives Kate a good hiding, Her Majesty (Wendy Wilmer) rises from her seat and declares, "Do it again! She likes it!"
"The Beard of Avon" is chockablock with wacky fractures of conventional Elizabethan wisdom -- its anachronistic sensibility owes a thing or two to the Oscar-winning film comedy "Shakespeare in Love" -- and it proves to be a nifty vehicle for Rorschach. Operating out of a Methodist church in the District's Mount Pleasant neighborhood, the company works with a bare minimum of props and scenery and still manages a splendid send-up of 16th-century mores. Director Jessica Burgess and a well-drilled cast, led by the winning Grady Weatherford as Will, tackle their assignments with the ravenous pleasure of hyenas feasting on a leg of gnu.
Freed's ambition here is not a small one. Her comedy is composed in the style of Stoppard. It binds together academic satire and lowbrow slapstick in what can be at times an untidy package. One moment, a character is engaged in a Lear-like raging in the wind; in the next, someone is passing wind. Scenes of Will's struggle with his intellectual limits follow scenes in which he's sating his bawdier appetites. You'd need a Shakespearean search engine at the ready to catch all the references to the canon, not to mention the cockeyed digs that Freed slips in at the expense of Dickens and Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Although Burgess's thrifty production unfolds briskly, "The Beard of Avon" suffers a bit from the author's playful long-windedness. Freed's machinations are intended to comment on some of Shakespeare's, and this gets somewhat unwieldy. A subplot in which Will's wife, Anne Hathaway (Valerie Fenton), pursues Will to London and disguises herself as a prostitute is meant to mimic all that far-fetched deception-by-costuming in Shakespeare. Here, it feels like one diversion too many, and as a result the play, in its final movements, becomes slightly wearing on one's patience.
Still, the evening is replete with the sorts of gags that Monty Python would have dreamed up, had the troupe decided to take on "Titus Andronicus." There is a funny running joke, for instance, about the inclination of actors of the day to depart from their script and crack up the crowd with a display of that old standby, a phony phallus. And Fenton's Anne does get off one of the evening's wittiest lines: exalting over her success in fooling her husband, she notes, "Had I only been a man, I might have been an actress."
"The Beard of Avon" is very much about a love of the stage. The idea that every so-and-so has a play in him is a drama-centric view of the universe as only a theaterphile can imagine it. Freed instills in Will Shakspere the purest expression of that love. Unlearned and consigned to a rube's anonymity, he is smitten after Anne takes him to an awful local production in Stratford. Soon enough, he's hired to act as a spear-carrier -- or as the company managers so aptly dub him, a "spear-shaker." He graduates to playwright when a jaded earl (Eric Singdahlson), horrified at the publicity that would attach to him if his name were to appear on his "Titus," persuades the naive Will to be his theatrical beard.
The twist is that Singdahlson's Edward De Vere is a master of plot but has no common touch. Will, it turns out, is a bit of a savant, able to speak from the heart with a simple grace, expressing innermost thoughts lyrically. "How comes it I hate my life and only live for dreaming?" he wonders. Where there's a Will, it seems, there is a way with words.
The sweet intimacy of Rorschach's staging -- the audience is practically on top of the actors -- serves the silly story. It helps, too, that the cast devotes itself to the task so gallantly. Weatherford, with a goofy exuberance and the right hairline, successfully navigates the arc of Will's growth, from shame over his backwardness to the confidence to handle himself in the more cultured realm to which he aspires. Singdahlson does a fine job with De Vere's brittle veneer, and Fenton makes for a vivacious Anne. In a variety of smaller roles, Scott McCormick and Andrew Jessop are continual assets, and Patrick Bussink is a particularly entertaining chameleon.
David C. Ghatan's bare-bones scenery makes swell use of the space, and Jenn Miller's costumes show how imaginatively you can conjure an age of corsets and jerkins, even on a shoestring. Nothing feels cheap when you're having fun.
The Beard of Avon, by Amy Freed. Directed by Jessica Burgess. Sets and lighting, David C. Ghatan; costumes, Jenn Miller; sound, Matthew Frederick; original music, Jesse Terrill. With Austin Bragg, Brent Stansell. Approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Nov. 20 at the Sanctuary Theatre at Casa del Pueblo Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com/rorschach.