Eugene Weekly : Theater : 2.7.08

Gender Bending and Script Mending in PDX
Shakespearean combo at PCS meets mixed success

Witty, sexy and crackling with smarts: That’s how Shakespeare’s comedies should play on stage. They’re not kindergarten material; they juggle gender and attraction and the heady feel of that animating mammal spark, lust.

Viola (Jennifer Lee Taylor) pays the Captain (Rob Krakovski)
Carol Halstead as Queen Bess
Darius Pierce as Shakspere and Brent Harris as de Vere

That is what made Shakespeare in Love, the 1998 Best Picture Oscar winner, such a superb piece of work: It acknowledged the essential drama at the heart of the better plays and toyed with gender and sex, wielding language as both snare and blade. And Amy Freed’s 2001 play The Beard of Avon, now running at Portland Center Stage, continues that tradition, turning a spectacularly enjoyable discussion of the plays’ authorship into a satisfying production full of heart and even hope. PCS plays Twelfth Night in repertory with Beard, but the Shakespeare play comes off the poorer of the two.

Shakespeare’s scripts blend bawdy, heartfelt, humorous and emotionally devastating scenes. Falstaff and Prince Hal, Beatrice and Benedick, Celia and Rosalind — their scenes of affection and love warm the most martial themes and provide touchstones of humanity when the world goes awry. Twelfth Night, by legend commissioned by Queen Elizabeth for performance on the twelfth night of Christmas (a time for servants to dress as masters and masters as servants), teases the audience with its plot and subplots of mistaken identity.

At PCS, the spare set for both shows, created by longtime Oregon Shakespeare Festival designer William Bloodgood, combines two levels, a couple of staircases and a few props to evoke a stagehouse, a barn, several country manors and, of course, the famous shipwreck that begins Twelfth Night.

That shipwreck might be the sexiest thing about PCS’ Twelfth Night as the ship’s figurehead (Carol Halstead, later to play Olivia) presents her cleavage holding together the tempest-tossed vessel.

When the ship breaks apart and the play begins, things don’t heat up much. But Twelfth Night — one of the better plotted of Shakespeare’s comedies — definitely should become spicy. Washed up on the shores of Illyria, Viola (Jennifer Lee Taylor) believes her twin brother lost in the storm. She decides to dress as a young page, Cesario, and become a servant to Illyria’s Duke Orsino (Brent Harris). In Elizabethan times, of course, Viola would have been played by a young man playing a young woman playing a young man — who attracts the amorous attention both of the Duke and of the woman the Duke is wooing, the noble Olivia.

Perhaps due to Twelfth Night director Jane Jones’ preferences or to PCS artistic director (and Beard of Avon director) Chris Coleman’s choices, Taylor never looks nor sounds the least bit like even an effeminate boy. And Deborah Trout’s costumes for Taylor and for Daniel Harray, who plays twin brother Sebastian, do little to flatter either actor. The true shame is that since this Viola doesn’t make a convincing Cesario, there’s little boundary transgression as Orsino finds himself interested in Cesario and Olivia in the same “boy.” Still, there were some gasps as Orsino ran his hands over Cesario’s arms in one music-laden scene. I wonder if that was more because of the audience’s feeling of secret knowledge than the (supposed) surprise of a man’s being attracted to one of his young male retainers.

One pleasing subplot, as usual with Twelfth Night, relies upon Olivia’s spleen-filled steward Malvolio (a splendid Brian Thompson), who delightfully preens and is easily flattered into believing Olivia pines for him. The others involved in that plot — Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Darius Pierce), Maria (Catherine Lynn Davis) and Sir Toby Belch (Kenneth Albers) — also entertain in more than passable fashion. And the tired, grizzled voice of the jester Feste (Brad Bellamy) gives his role an unusual tinge of bitter submission. This is an acceptable Twelfth Night, suitable for youngsters who will giggle at the mistaken identities, with the tiniest frisson of fun for adults as well.

Freed’s Beard of Avon, though occasion-ally saggy, for the most part sparkled. Many of these actors have experience at the OSF and other Shakes fests, but I think they prefer Freed’s 21st century sensibilities. Sure, she writes in pseudo-Elizabethan style — the awkwardly striving couplets her Shakspere (her spelling; played by an excellent Darius Pierce) tosses off charm and alarm his small-town confederates long before he hits the big time — but Freed’s commentary on fame, ambition, sexual politics, identity and betrayal displays a most contemporary sensibility. This show is funny, resonant and sexy, everything Twelfth Night should be (and perhaps will be as the run continues).

Beard of Avon cleverly presents the arguments made by “Oxfordians,” who argue that Shakespeare, a glovemaker’s son, could not possibly have written with such breadth, assurance and reach. These scholars claim that evidence links the life experience of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Brent Harris, who clearly relishes the chest-baring role), with plot points in various Bard plays. Yet Freed doesn’t give de Vere sole credit. Instead, she makes her Shakspere run from family responsibility to fulfill his theatrical dreams in London, where his quick brain and agile writing ability soon transform his destiny.

But there’s more, including arch references to de Vere’s lover Henry Wriothesley (beautiful John Wernke, appearing as a bare-legged, golden-tressed Cupid) and the literature-loving Sir Francis Bacon (Brian Thompson) and Queen Elizabeth (Carol Halstead, much more energetic in this role than as Olivia). Anne Hathaway (a fine, feisty Catherine Lynn Davis) wakens her own sexuality with well-timed identity switching but falls into a love triangle that introduces jealousy, loss and a certain Sondheimian richness.

Though the play flirts with too much exposition and exaggeration after intermission, it ends with a smart and moving scene that links Shakespeare to Tony Kushner, the late 16th century to the early 21st and Beard, in full circle fashion, to Twelfth Night

Don’t ignore Eugene theater (WillRep’s Proof and the Leebrick’s Busy World Is Hushed promise excellent evenings), but hie thee to Portland for a thoughtful, hilarious, zesty pair of performances to spice up the February doldrums.

The Beard of Avon runs through March 8; Twelfth Night through March 9. Portland Center Stage is located at128 NW 11th Ave. in PDX. Tix available at www.pcs.orgor 503-445-3700.