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Theater review: The Beard of Avon

Authorship debate makes a stage delight
by: ©2008 OWEN CAREY, Will Shakespeare (Darius Pierce, left) and Edward De Vere (Brent Harris) cook up a plot sure to drive future academics insane.

After several hundred years, the debate will not die.

Did William Shakespeare really write the illustrious canon attributed to him? While most believe the glove-maker's son from Stratford is indeed the authentic item, scholars have been driven to madness insisting that others penned the works that bear his name.

Even as the dispute steps into the spotlight in Amy Freed's superb comedy at Portland Center Stage, it also becomes academic. What matters is the riveting tale and flawless stagecraft that make this the best ensemble piece seen in Portland this season.

The play will alternate weeks and even nights with 'Twelfth Night,' which opens tonight.

The brightest star in this seamless production is Edward De Vere (Brent Harris), the 17th Earl of Oxford, regarded by some as the real Bard. Events are set in motion when the swashbuckling but disaffected aristocrat decides to see his cache of manuscripts performed on stage, a place then considered beneath those of high station.

Enter Will Shakespeare, an unaccomplished dreamer who's left his wife back in Stratford to take a job as a bit player, thereby gaining access to the London theater world.

With some reluctance, he agrees to front for De Vere. He does a little script doctoring and signs his name to a series of hit plays, enjoying the life until his wife shows up, determined to win him back.

She wins his attentions disguised as a prostitute, but things get complicated when she's also bedded by the rakish De Vere, a meaty slab of a man with murderous instincts, an omnivorous sexual appetite and perfect hair.

But it's also here that Shakespeare make his stand. He sees the value of the woman he's left behind, finds the courage to believe in his own art, and stands up to De Vere's blithe cruelty.

It's a great story, but even better theater, thanks to brilliant performances by the New York-based Harris and Portland's own Darius Pierce as Shakespeare.

The play succeeds at every level, with technical virtuosity from Portland Center Stage and sharply tuned performances from a fine cast, but the real magic comes from the two characters who collaborate in Freed's terrific play, whether or not they did so in real life.

- Eric Bartels

'The Beard of Avon': 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, Jan. 29 and Jan. 31; 'Twelfth Night': 7:30 p.m. FRIDAY and SATURDAY, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. SUNDAY, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25-27 and Jan. 30, Gerding Theater at the Armory, 128 N.W. 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, www.pcs.org, $15-$60