Toronto
2 min

Corn of plenty

And baskets the size of small hens

QUEENS RULE. Brenda Robins as a great Queen Elizabeth. Credit: Xtra files

Anyone with a taste for ribald comedy, queenly frocks and men with baskets the size of a small hen, will love the Canadian Stage production of The Beard Of Avon, a delightfully irreverent take on one of history’s most overexposed playwrights.



Amy Freed’s play is based on the premise that Shakespeare did not write all of his own plays, and was, in fact, an illiterate bumpkin who found himself lured into court intrigue as “beard” for a variety of lords, ladies, queens (effeminate and otherwise) and earls trying their hand at the most proletarian of arts, play-writing. Poetry was considered high art at the time and plays were for the masses.



The film Shakespeare In Love gave us a very heterosexually hygienic view of the bard. CanStage gives us bawdy costuming and broad, expertly executed comic acting that makes the flip of a wrist or an outstretched palm into a large syncopated gesture.



Gay men and women who have been escorted by someone of the opposite sex posing as their insignificant other, understand the cultural message at play in the word “beard.” We sometimes choose to wear culturally prescribed costumes, “beards,” in order to pass as straight – the same way straight versions of Shakespeare have been inserted into public schools across the continent for the past century. Shakespearean drama is as bent as a handlebar moustache. Conservative versions of his work disguise vulgarity for the sake of good taste; the CanStage production directed by David Storch is a raucous romp.



Stephen Ouimette’s Edward de Vere shines as an example of comic acting so well timed and expertly intoned that a single “hello” brought down the house on opening night. De Vere’s deathbed scene is layered with poignancy and high pitched comic melodrama as intrigues are revealed, and the fine line between tragedy and comedy is as blurred as a drunken queen’s mascara.



The drag performances are thoughtful, hilarious and entirely sympathetic. And Although I prefer my queens to be men, Brenda Robins’ Queen Elizabeth is a wonderful cross between Judy Dench, Glenda Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg (during that blessed Oscar moment when, following a costumed appearance as the famed monarch, Whoopi remarked, “It takes a long time to get a white virgin off your face”).



An effeminate actor says of “herself” early on in The Beard, “What gets the shit beaten out of you one day makes you a star the next.” Anyone who loves a queen can relate to that.



Freed’s comic message, like Shakespeare’s, is simultaneously subtle and overstated. The CanStage production is beautifully rendered by actors, technicians, director and designers – paying tribute to my favourite line in the play when a thespian exclaims, “I have great thought-like things in my head.”



This production has great thought-like things for both the eye and the ear to behold.



The Beard Of Avon continues until Sat, Dec 14 at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front St E); call (416) 368-3110.