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There’s a T-shirt, somewhere at our house, that proves what a giant geek my Perl-speaking sweetheart is. /(bb|[^b]{2})/, it says, in a conspicuously Elizabethan font, and the sad thing about the people we hang out with is that several of our friends have actually glanced at it and snickered.

Of course, I was the one spitting Diet Coke in the multiplex a few years back, when the maudlin Joseph Fiennes bellied up to the bar and moaned, “Give me to drink mandragora”—’cause you know nothing beats a good Antony and Cleopatra joke. And I was the one falling out of my chair this weekend at the Rorschach Theatre’s The Beard of Avon, when that jaded sadist Edward de Vere commenced whinging about “how weary, stale, and unprofitable” his life of debauchery seemed—so whether code-wankers or Hamlet dweebs are more pathetic is, I suppose, an open question.

Nice, then, that playwright Amy Freed wants to share the keys to the geekdom. Her comic wrangle with the notion that maybe Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare may be crammed to the gills with insider humor about the Bard’s unexpected use of fishing terms, but Freed’s crafty enough that you needn’t bring along your pocket Arden to get the jokes. The play, much like the canon it affectionately mocks, mines laughs from the juxtaposition of high-flown language and low physical humor—there’s a crotch joke for every rhyming couplet, it seems—and Freed milks as much comedy from the sly conflation of modern sensibilities with Elizabethan settings as from specialist knowledge of literature and history, as many yuks from situational silliness as from scholarly obscurities. In Rorschach’s stripped-down, low-budget production, directed with much wicked speed by Jessica Burgess, The Beard of Avon plays like a bunch of drunk Shakespeareans putting together an uncommonly clever episode of Saturday Night Live, and I mean that as a compliment.

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When we meet him, Freed’s Will Shakspere (a wonderfully ingratiating Grady Weatherford) is an ill-educated hayseed hiding out in his barn, composing wistful odes to trapped rats and avoiding his shrew of a wife (Valerie Fenton); uncertain what’s missing down in rural Stratford, he’s still certain he’s missing something. When a halfassed troupe of traveling players passes through town, he sees a way out, and he runs off to London, where it’s only an iamb, a dactyl, and an anapest to a bit-parts career only a genuine theater junkie could love. (“Dear boy,” his commercial hack of a producer intones, “in the theater there are no small parts,” and poor Will is just starry-eyed enough to believe it.) Happily, another conventional plot coincidence is just around the corner, where the auctorially inclined Earl of Oxford (Eric Singdahlsen) is working on a draft of Titus Andronicus; the theater being far too sordid for a nobleman, even one as bloody-minded and depraved as Oxford, he needs a frontman to take credit for the play if it’s to be produced—a beard, as it were, and the young man from Avon fits the bill.

Soon enough, Will’s knack for rhyme asserts itself, and he’s not just polishing up the well-educated Oxford’s decidedly rough drafts, but ghosting for half the court—he’s got the instinct for poetry, the joke goes, but not so much for plot—and by the time Wendy Wilmer’s absurdly self-enamored Queen Elizabeth contributes The Taming of a Shrew, he’s grown into his gifts sufficiently to hazard a life-threatening observation: “Great Majesty, in all the dimness of mine own humility, it seemed to me the ending needeth work.”

The Shrew scene proves one of Beard’s strongest, blending slapstick chaos as a performance falls apart with moments of genuine inspiration as first Will and then the queen “improvise” lines that become Kate’s impassioned closing speech, all in a context that makes its famously problematic anti-feminism seem almost logical. It’s one of several moments in which the real Shakespeare’s peerless language overtakes and overwhelms Freed’s deliberately (and hilariously) florid Elizabethanisms, and one of a handful of scenes that suggest truths more crucial to this warmhearted comedy than any mere answer to the authorship question that inspired it: Theater’s genius is a collaborative one, Freed generously and lightheartedly points out, and the genius we discover in Shakespeare finally overbears any need to discover a genius behind him.

“Everything comes from nothing,” a winsome young actor sings plaintively in one of Beard’s more reflective moments, just after a bawdy rhyme about how his girl “said nothing” while he wooed her, and among the language jokes Freed keeps scattering are a couple of riffs on Shakespeare’s penchant for, well, riffs. “Note this before my notes,” cracks a troubadour who’s been urged to sing a serenade in Much Ado About Nothing, which just opened in a nifty new production at the Folger Theatre—“there’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.” Take all that together with the knowledge that in Shakespeare’s day, “nothing” was pronounced “noting,” and you’ve got…well, much ado about that notion of nothing both authors keep returning to.

Much Ado, it turns out, turns on the problem of “noting,” of noticing the goodness and the evil that’s hiding in plain sight, and on the “nothing” (the everything) bound up in antique ideas about womanly virtue and manly honor. The Folger production doesn’t bog down, of course, in textual navel-gazing, but director Nick Hutchison—who’s updated the story to post–World War II London, divided its civilian women and military men into Brit civilians and American GIs jubilantly celebrating VE Day, and set the whole business swinging to the sounds of the big-band era—does seem keenly aware of how linguistically rich and playful this intricate comedy is, how beautifully built and delicately balanced.

His cast, headed by the superbly agile team of P.J. Sosko and Kate Eastwood Norris, makes wonderfully clear work of scenes that less attentive directors are content to let pass muddily, and together he and they discover unexpected shades of rue in a play that has more than a few to start with. Norris, a Folger mainstay over the last few years, and D.C. newcomer Sosko, who with any luck will become one, are Beatrice and Benedick, the blisteringly witty twosome who’ve loved each other once and will again, assuming their bruised egos will get out of the way. (And they will, never fear, once a subplot provides an opening.) Their defensive banter, in this reading more than most, seems all about staving off that inevitability and the possibility of fresh hurt that comes with it; Norris’ crisp competence and Sosko’s bantam swagger both smack of overcompensation—but such charming overcompensation that we’re never tempted to write them off as mere blowhards.

The break comes when Benedick’s army buddy Claudio, tricked by a blackhearted mischief-maker into thinking his bride-to-be has been consorting with half the rank and file, humiliates Beatrice’s cousin Hero at the altar. Beatrice’s heartbreak and her impotent fury leave the door open for Benedick to drop his guard and win her back, and under Hutchison’s sure hand the scene fairly explodes with the rawness and honesty of her anger and his bewildered, determined love. It’s the play’s great moment, and at the Folger it’s played achingly, combustibly enough to compensate for shortcomings elsewhere.

Chiefly, those involve Dean Alai’s blank-faced Claudio, so thoroughly inert as to render his outrage a yawn and his eventual contrition entirely unconvincing. Alai delivers his lines cleanly enough but on the surface, with nothing behind his eyes or under his skin. That he’s sharing a stage with actors as subtle and resourceful as Norris and Sosko makes his shortcomings all the more glaring. Tiffany Fillmore’s wronged Hero is likewise a less than involving creation; Timmy Ray James fawns and then blusters a little self-consciously as her patrician father, and Jim Jorgensen lurks rather more melodramatically than necessary as the vile Don John, author of all the trouble.

James Kronzer’s stately-home façade neatly incorporates those always problematic columns in the middle of the Folger’s Elizabethan stage, but otherwise Hutchison’s update seems something of a wash. Notions of personal honor and family reputation are critical to the plot’s credibility, and though some regimentation doubtless remained in 1945 London, it’s hard to imagine one American GI challenging another to a duel over a British girl the latter has done wrong. Still, they pass without too much trouble, and the WWII costuming opportunities (taken up with élan by Kate Turner-Walker) are a definite plus.

There’s more to affirmatively celebrate in what Hutchison does with the play’s famously rude mechanicals—their nonsense chatter is all clean, crisp consonants, and the malapropist constable Dogberry (Jim Zidar) gets a wonderful, warmly lit moment of dignity that most productions, missing the character’s essential decency, don’t allow him. There’s richness, likewise, in a flustered instant of clarity that Norris and James Denvil find in an often thrown-away moment between the wisecracking Beatrice and the nobleman Don Pedro—here an American officer who, for all his later certainty about Hero’s wickedness, knows a genuinely good woman when he sees one, and hurts a little when she doesn’t return the compliment.

It’s those flashes of humanity that make the difference between merely professional Shakespeare and Shakespeare that strikes home, between theater that impresses and theater that connects. So never mind the reservations about the how well the update works, and forget the weaknesses among the supporting players: Hutchison finds everything there is to love about Much Ado in the little moments too many other directors think nothing of. CP