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'The Beard' tries too hard with the Bard

Shakespeare blends high and low comedy so seamlessly that he makes the trick look easy. When lesser minds attempt it, though, it too often becomes obvious just how hard it is.

Take ``The Beard of Avon," in which Amy Freed throws high-flying lyricism and bottom-dwelling puns at the Shakespeare authorship question. Freed wants to engage large questions about creativity and love; she also wants to get quick laughs with faux-Elizabethan anachronisms (``You do deprive me of my necessary space") and bawdy sight gags involving sausage. Maybe the Bard could pull it off. ``The Beard," no matter how hard the Publick Theatre tries to make it fly, just can't.

It's not that Freed is never funny; she has a lively wit and a knack for incongruity that create some genuinely farcical moments. But hers is the kind of intelligence that can't stop calling attention to itself, and it's also the kind that, when it tries to shift from verbal dazzlement to emotional depth, only leaves us feeling a little lost.

Ironically, it's the conflict between soul and wit that seems to engage Freed most in her telling of the story of rustic bumpkin Will Shakspere and dissolute courtier Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who here come together to create the works of ``William Shakespeare." De Vere longs to really feel, you see, and Will longs to create great art, but De Vere is a cold man and Will a simple one. Only together can they give us the great artistry and great emotion of Shakespeare.

Well, OK. But the two do need to come together, and in ``Beard" they're more like oil and water. The play is too silly to take seriously, too ponderous to sail through as pure farce. At more than two hours, it's also too long.

But that does give director Diego Arciniegas and his high-spirited cast plenty of time to have fun with the Publick's Shakespearean tradition, as well as send up theatrical cliches and hammy acting, whole scenes and famous passages from assorted Shakespeare plays, and of course the morass of competing theories about who Shakespeare was. Besides De Vere, who's the current front-runner, Freed serves up a host of others, up to and including Elizabeth I.

Gabriel Kuttner's Shakspere is a rough-hewn charmer who can almost make the poetry he's forced to spout sound natural. Opposite him, Bill Mootos gives De Vere a snaky allure and as much emotional shading as the part will allow, aided by the sweetly empathetic Eric Hamel as his great love, Henry Wriothesley. Helen McElwain is terrific as Anne Hathaway, enraged to be left behind in Stratford when husband Will runs off to join the theater, and Ellen Adair delights in a couple of smaller roles.

They're all dressed in wonderfully over-the-top Elizabethan garb by Rafael Jaen -- the ruffs and bustles for the queen are especially amusing, though M. Lynda Robinson sometimes looks and sounds more Elizabeth II than I -- and Judy Staicer's minimal set does what it needs to. Steven Barkhimer contributes some lovely, funny songs that almost smooth Freed's abrupt shifts in tone.

It all leaves you wanting ``Beard" to work better than it does. For that to happen, though, Freed would have to decide just what kind of play she wanted to write. Or -- who knows? -- find a gifted bumpkin of her own.

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