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Flashes of lite

Amy Freed's offers a few laughs and little more.

By Brad Rosenstein

The Beard of Avon

'HEY, WHATEVER worketh!" a character exclaims in Amy Freed's The Beard of Avon, and that glib anachronism exemplifies the show's approach. One of the most widely produced new plays this season, Beard is making its local bow at American Conservatory Theater. The play dives headfirst into the knotty "authorship question" behind Shakespeare's plays, asking whether a raw, rhyming lad from Stratford named Will Shakspere could truly have created some of the most immortal literature ever written – or whether he had more than a little help from his friends.

In Freed's light comic fantasy, Will (Matthew Boston) is an amateur rural poet who burns with big dreams and feels trapped in his marriage to the older Anne Hathaway (René Augesen). Seduced by a band of traveling players, Will tries his luck in London in the company of Heminge (Charles Lanyer) and Condel (Charles Dean). Confined to minor roles, often literally that of a "spear shaker," he learns his craft and is ready to pounce when very frustrated playwright Edward de Vere (Marco Barricelli), the 17th earl of Oxford, decides he needs a "beard" to go slumming and put his work on the stage.

Naturally, complications ensue as the play's own authorship questions become increasingly tangled and as Anne comes to visit London (disguised, of course). But although Beard's historical speculations are offered with intelligence and humor, it settles for some awfully superficial conjectures on the true nature of "Shakespeare" and his work. Freed's Will is filled with appealing longing, but his growth over the course of the play seems attributable more to rhetoric than experience. The play also runs out of story in a thin, repetitious second act, substituting farcical energy for comedic resonance.

Beard is an affectionate satire of the theater, and the evening's chief pleasures are some knowing comic performances: Kandis Chappell's tartly dramaturgical Queen Elizabeth, Lanyer's plummy Heminge, Brian Keith Russell's tumescent Richard Burbage, and Augesen's lusty role-playing Anne. But it's Boston's fiercely yearning Will and Barricelli's expertly wry de Vere who carry the evening, their negotiations of shared status, personality, and talent informing the play's best scenes. Mark Rucker's direction never loses its bounce, but unfortunately that's also its chief limitation, as it maintains a monotonously breezy pace and tone. Beaver Bauer's extravagantly theatrical costumes chart Will's ever evolving rank with considerable wit.

In her previous plays Freed proved an enthusiastic debunker of artistic myths, particularly in the lives of literary artists, but she usually did it with more heft and insight than appear here. Beard clearly aspires to little more than dessert status, despite occasionally casting an eye in the direction of a main course. Particularly with Shakespeare in Love – a comedy that handled the question of how a writer becomes great with much more dramatic acuity – in memory yet green, Beard comes up wanting, a low-cal substitute for the real thing.

Redesign

Frivolity seems to be the prevalent theatrical style this New Year, and the ever stylish Noel Coward is once again in perfect tune. Still, Design for Living remains one of his thorniest comedies, a seeming confection that hides razor blades in its froth. Who better to send them slashing than director John Fisher, who's sure to leave no delicate double entendre uncut? In this Theatre Rhinoceros production, Fisher updates the play from 1932 to the present, introduces Coward songs as Greek choruses between scenes, and renders the main characters' bisexual ménage à trois in no uncertain terms.

In oh-so-liberated San Francisco the joke, of course, is that more than a few people may still have issues with a bisexual trio, perhaps no less so than audiences of 70 years ago. But ironically this most "shocking" of Coward's comedies winds up seeming tame in Fisher's production. All the ass slapping and nipple grabbing here seems like a facile reassurance, sexual slapstick that diverts attention from the complicated, difficult relationships at the play's core.

Even Fisher's use of the songs as an awkward Brechtian device seems calculated to distance. Whenever the play gets too hot Fisher invariably steamrolls the complexity with a joke. His decision to Americanize things also makes mincemeat of Coward's language. Jayson Matthews's Otto has a particularly hard time of it. Will Springhorn Jr.'s Leo fares a bit better but remains one-dimensional. Only Doug Holsclaw's flamingly closeted Ernest and Jenny Lord's radiantly edgy Gilda nail both the comedy and the painful ambivalence that make the play dangerous and worthwhile.

'The Beard of Avon.' Through Feb. 10. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.), Geary Theater, 415 Geary, S.F. $11-$61. (415) 749-2228. 'Design for Living.' Through Feb. 16. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (also Sun/27, Sun/3, and Feb. 10, 3 p.m.), Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St., S.F. $15-$25. (415) 861-5079.