Aubrey Hampton's Elizabeth and Edward is an ambitious if not very convincing attempt to demonstrate that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the real author of the plays of William Shakespeare. Employing a wide range of characters in a series of disjointed scenes, Hampton puts on stage not only Edward and the hapless "Will Shaksper" but also Queen Elizabeth I, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and a host of others.
What they try to show or tell us is that the "grain merchant of Stratford" was too unlettered and inexperienced to have written so many great plays, and that only a man well-acquainted with Elizabeth's court, schooled in the law and fluent in several languages could be responsible for Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Twelfth Night. Hampton's writing is sharp and muscular, but his strategy of presenting his arguments without plot or suspense finally results in a certain tedium.
Still, many of the pageant's key actors are highly talented, and when the Bard himself is quoted — in snatches of Hamlet, or Richard II or the sonnets — well, then, it's feast time at Gorilla Theatre. Which makes me think: Now that American Stage has jettisoned its annual Shakespeare play, why shouldn't Gorilla take up the slack? I'd even accept Edward de Vere's name on the program if it meant I could see Lear or Measure for Measure or The Tempest. Are you listening, Gorilla?
The current play proceeds according to a logic that escapes me entirely. First we're introduced to a covey of ghosts who fall to talking about Shakespeare's disputed identity and then we're watching Queen Elizabeth as she announces her admiration of "one of the most beautiful boys I ever saw," Edward de Vere. We meet two Elizabethans, William Camden and Gabriel Harvey, who offer us more evidence that Edward was the true Shakespeare, after which 20th century psychoanalytic giants Freud and Ernest Jones argue that Edward's own life, and Freud's theories, are suspiciously predominant in Shakespeare's plays.
This is followed by the appearance of J. Thomas Looney, whose book claiming Shakespeare was Edward seems to have influenced author Hampton, and then we're back in the 16th century with Edward himself boasting of his erudition while a country dunce named Shaksper tries with no luck to spell "England."
There's a lot more of this pointed disorder, along with a wonderfully exciting swordfight, a visit with the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, a lengthy argument in favor of Edward by Mark Twain, and even a visit with Charlie Chaplin, who operates a little tramp marionette and opines that no ill-educated Stratfordian could have penned the comedies and tragedies.
Oafish Shaksper appears a few more times — selling oranges and speaking a crude sort of English — and finally Edward wins a round in a duel with his alter ego. But as one of the characters says, "I feel sorry for the Bard ... I still think he wrote the plays." Four hundred years of disinformation, it seems, is too much to overcome in a single evening.
The truly outstanding actor in the play is Giles Davis, who plays Edward with panache, and who speaks Shakespeare's words brilliantly, as if he were born to them. But there are other fine thespians: Pat Fenda is Queen Elizabeth with a charming, ironic lilt, and Scott Isert gives us a poor Shaksper who, as a benighted, unwashed boob, can't tell blank verse from a side of meat. Alvin Jenkins takes on multiple roles, but is particularly convincing as Twain, and Steve Mountan as Sigmund Freud, Gabriel Harvey and Sir Francis Bacon proves again that he's one of the most versatile actors in the area. Kyle Porter and Reginald Robinson, Jr. are thrilling as swordsmen Tybalt and Romeo, but in the dress rehearsal that I attended, the other three actors — Magali Naas, Christopher Perez and Soolaf Rasheid — never truly dominated their material.
Nancy Cole's direction could hardly be better, though, and Allen Loyd's set, featuring red silhouettes against a back wall, and a stairway at stage left, is attractive and evocative. Lynne Locher's lovely sound design places us squarely in the Renaissance.
So who wrote Shakespeare? Read S. Schoenbaum's Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, and I don't think you'll find it so unlikely that he was he. But I'm still glad I saw Elizabeth and Edward. It makes me want to inquire further, especially into the claim that Edward's life is paralleled in Hamlet. This is an intelligent docu-drama, regardless of its flaws. And Edward de Vere can be proud: Bard or no Bard, he's been resurrected.