Tim Blake Nelson in The Beard of Avon
Tim Blake Nelson in The Beard of Avon
Concern about the authorship of the plays credited to William Shakespeare's has swirled for a few hundred years. The man known as Shakespeare or Shakspere -- or whatever unstandardized spelling you like -- died at Stratford in 1616. (Well, we're pretty sure it was 1616.) Since then, several playwrights -- including the man himself -- have been identified as the authors or co-authors of an impressive canon that generally runs to 36 or 37 items. (Does that include the contested Edward III? Who knows?)

In recent decades, as sweating scholars have compared the rhetorical devices, word usage, and verse meter of various folios, the debate over who penned (quilled?) the works has intensified. It so happens that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, has taken the lead among the pack of possible Ur-Shakespeares. Even Mark Rylance, the artistic director of London's New Globe and a leading Shakespearean actor, seems to favor Oxford these days -- although we may not be certain how convinced he is about all of this until he begins referring to himself as an Oxfordian actor.

Of the speculators who have come along to kick the Shakespeare question around, none has provided as many kicks -- in the cheery entertainment sense of that word -- as Amy Freed. Her comedy The Beard of Avon, which has been tried out in a few previous productions, has now made its mock-courtly Manhattan bow at the New York Theatre Worskhop -- a debut as bright and sassy as any we've seen in this unusually busy season.

Freed has indicated that she views the identification of the real author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare as a serious issue, yet she hasn't been so pedantic as to think that she shouldn't send up all the quarto-shuffling and name-calling that's been going on. Quite the opposite: She has written a play that is consistently, satiricaly jolly even though it's based on what many might assume is a one-joke idea. Indeed, she tells the joke and then supports it by constructing a worthy play to support the merry gags.

Introducing William Shakspere (Tim Blake Nelson) as a Stratford bumpkin who leaves his good wyf Anne Hathaway (Kate Jennings Grant) to seek work as an actor in London, Freed has the earnest fellow quickly meet the licentious Edward de Vere (Mark Harelik), a playwriting nobleman who fears that allowing his works to be produced under his venerable family name would most certainly lead to his being booted out of court society. Although Will hasn't risen too far above the rank of acting company spear-shaker (puns are something from which Freed doesn't flinch), his constant iambic pentameter wordplay suggests that he does have a certain talent. That talent is recognized by the players with whom he's thrown in his lot, among them the actor John Heminge (David Schramm); but one member of the company, the vain Richard Burbage (James Gale), fails to recognize the young fellow's promise.

Mary Louise Wilson, James Gale, Justin Schultz,and Tim Blake Nelson in The Beard of Avon
Mary Louise Wilson, James Gale, Justin Schultz,
and Tim Blake Nelson in The Beard of Avon
Before long, Will's skills are noticed by De Vere, as well. Preoccupied with his lover, Henry Wriothesley (Jeff Whitty), the randy aristocrat is soon collaborating on sonnets with the renamed Will Shakespeare and even allowing the literally high-browed Will to contribute freely to the plays. (Incidentally, co-authorship of Titus Andronicus is not currently being attributed to the earl but to George Peele.) News of Will's cooperative nature spreads.

Here's an example of how funny Freed can be as she's fantasizing on false and true scribes: A discussion of Richard III begins when Heminge's colleague Henry Condel (Alan Mandel) says to Will, "[De Vere] gave you the manuscript before he left." Will shoots back, "'I see a hunchback. You flesh it out.' That's all I got from Oxford." But no more samples of Freed's wit will be forthcoming here, for that would spoil the fun of the play. Suffice it to say that not only does the playwright salt her script with japes like these, she also drops recognizable quotes as part of the characters' speeches -- familiar Shakespeare phrases as well as sound bites from plays as recent as those of Tennessee Williams. (Well, okay, here'e one more Freed gag on Elizabethan tradition: When Anne Hathaway decides to follow her truant hubby to London, she looks over the life that the so-called theatricals live and sighs, "Had I only been a man, I might have been an actress.")

But Freed isn't content merely to joke around; she's after more than having Anne Hathaway travel to London and try an affair with Oxford or sending the members of Queen Elizabeth's court to Will with unfinished manuscripts that they want him to complete and then present. (There'll be no giveaway here of which Shakespeare play Queen Elizabeth, played by Mary Louise Wilson, herself takes credit for.) Aware that even imaginative changes wrung on one joke can eventually lose their appeal, Freed makes three-dimensional figures of Will and De Vere. This Will is a man intent on growing into himself, one who slowly comes to understand that he has writing ability and works hard to make it manifest. Freed's De Vere is someone who realizes to his chagrin he's been squandering his days and ought to make some decisions about what his true values are.

Towards the end of the play, when Will and De Vere begin tossing sonnet lines at each other, Freed not only goes for laughs and gets them but also shows us the developing friendship between the men. This is quite an accomplishment in a play spun from a notion that would only seem worthy as the premise for a stand-up skit. Yes, The Beard of Avon has its longeurs, but as longeurs go, they're forgivably shorteur.

Doug Hughes, who directs the play on an ingenious kind-of-Elizabethan set from Neil Patel, gets Freed's joke and every little nuance in it. He especially understands that what could be considered a theater companion piece to the Marc Norman-Tom Stoppard film Shakespeare in Love is more than a spoof on academic exploration; Freed is also tweaking actors' ostentations, so the canny Hughes has the cast go at it with histrionics flying.

David Schramm, Justin Schultz, Timothy Doyle, and Alan Mandellin The Beard of Avon
David Schramm, Justin Schultz, Timothy Doyle, and Alan Mandell
in The Beard of Avon
Tim Blake Nelson, small and energetic as a wind-up toy, declaims his Shakespearean doggerel with complete conviction. But more than that, he's able to make Will a thoroughly sympathetic and lovable man. Mark Harelik, tall and thin and outfitted with shoulder length tresses by Lazaro Arencibia, assumes grandiose poses. Hugging walls and posts, his De Vere indulges in comic overacting until he realizes that he needs to calm himself.

Everyone else in the 11-member company -- six of them doubling and tripling -- performs with polish. Kate Jennings Grant goes from perplexed country wife to would-be strumpet with winning enthusiasm. Jeff Witty as the epicene Henry Wriothesley is a fruity hoot. Tom Lacy is hilarious as a hayseed: He delivers a wonderful, second banana's "uh-oh" in the course of his duties, then changes into a doublet and becomes an amusing King's Men-like player. Mary Louise Wilson packs prodigious nonsense into the no-nonsense Elizabeth. David Schramm, James Gale, Timothy Doyle, Justin Schultz, and Alan Mandell are worthies all, as Shakespeare-or-someone might have said.

There are outstanding contributions from costume designer Catherine Zuber, lighting designer Michael Chybowski, and sound designer David Van Tieghem, who has written some original music and also included snatches of period songs. The Beard of Avon is a thoroughly engaging play that has been given a thoroughly engaging production.