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BeardofAvon

Did an unknown glover's son from Stratford-Upon-Avon really go to London and begin producing the works of William Shakespeare? Camelot Theatre Company presents the answer to the question of whether there was a Shakespeare conspiracy with a new production of Amy Freed's comedy "The Beard of Avon," directed by Livia Genise.

A bumpkin, Will Shakespeare, who longs to be an artist, flees his filthy barn, homebound older wife and incessant chores for the bright lights of Elizabethan London. Did the stagestruck dreamer become a front man for Sir Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford and even Queen Elizabeth, authors too proud to admit they scribbled plays for the unwashed masses?

"It's so silly," Genise says. "So much fun. She wrote it tongue in cheek."

"The Beard of Avon" is a farce that uses the long-standing debate over who penned the Shakespeare canon to take a merry look at the mortality of artists and the immortality of art. With a wink at the intervening four centuries, Freed reflects on artistic inspiration, the struggle to become an artist and the meaning of creativity.

Genise describes the company's approach as Monty Python meets Mel Brooks' "Robin Hood, Men in Tights."

A lecturer in the drama department at Stanford University, Freed has been writing plays since 1991 and was nominated for a 1998 Pulitzer Prize for her play "Freedomland." She has said that she began "Beard" as a comedy about people obsessed by conspiracies and then became obsessed herself with the conspiracy.

In real life, Oxfordians are those who believe that Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, wrote the 37 plays and 154 sonnets attributed to William Shakespeare. Their numbers have included Sigmund Freud, Sir John Gielgud, Orson Welles, Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London, among others.

"In one scene, Oxford says, 'Who cares who wrote what?' " Genise says. "It's about the work."

Camelot's production of "The Beard of Avon" stars Joe Charter as Will Shakespeare and Camelot Producing Director Doug Warner as Edward de Vere. Charter, a lawyer and a judge, was seen previously at Camelot in "Inherit the Wind," "Judgment at Nuremberg" and "The 1940s Radio Hour."

"Joe is wonderful," Genise says. "Sometimes what gets in his way is if you don't understand what you're saying, the audience won't either. Once he gets it, it takes care of itself."

But is it a bit of a stretch for a middle-aged actor to play a young dude?

"We're not doing it for reality," Genise says. "It's farcical."

There was just one problem.

"The hair on Joe's head just isn't growing out," Genise says. "It's not even enough for a ponytail."

Warner has appeared in "The 1940s Radio Hour" and "An American Daughter" at Camelot and directed "The Miracle Worker" earlier this season. Formerly the producing director at Mendocino Theatre Company, Warner joined Camelot's staff a year ago.

Also starring in "The Beard of Avon" are Camelot veterans Dianna Warner as Queen Elizabeth, Judith Rosen as Anne Hathaway, Charles Cherry as John Heminge and Jack Seybold as Henry Condel.

SOU's Karl Iverson wrote the original music and learned to play mandolin for the production.

Although Freed takes no serious position on the authorship question, Genise admits to some Oxfordian leanings.

"It's a fascinating question," she says. "That's why Amy Freed had so much fun."