Four lines into Act 1, Scene 1, farmer Will Shakspere (Rob Campbell) is in his barn, watching the rain pour down, standing next to his farmhand, Colin (Rob Riley). "Nothing to do about it," Will says. Colin, agreeing: "No. You have to make hay while the sun shines."
"There's wisdom in what you say," Will says, intrigued.
Will's youthful marriage to Anne Hathaway (Hollis Resnik, channeling Shani Wallis in the era of "Oliver!") has hit a rut. The farmer, sensitive about his receding hairline, is a man with "great thought-like 'things' within my head."
So he ditches Stratford to become an actor in London. Theatrical impresarios John Heminge (Greg Vinkler, a sterling comic standout) and Henry Condel (Jeffrey Hutchinson, a nice reedy counterpoint to Vinkler) take Will on as a "spear-shaker." Fate then throws the fledgling Will in with Edward de Vere (Mark Harelik, reprising his ripping turn from the play's Southern California premiere), a decadent, brilliant courtier looking for a beard a front-man for his trunkful of unperformed dramas. Freed's play also follows the spurned Hathaway to London, where she disguises herself as a "gamesome slut" and fools her own husband straight into bed.
Will's secret collaboration with de Vere begins with Will doing touch-up work, adding the odd bit of shtick. It gradually becomes more complex: de Vere's cold, diamond-like skill lacks "warmth," and that's what the rustic from Stratford provides. Once de Vere starts working out his playwriting jones, Queen Elizabeth (Ora Jones, no relation to playwriting jones), hopelessly enamored with the bisexual de Vere, slips the theatrical troupe something about the taming of a shrew.
Freed is a sucker for Stan Freberg-like anachronisms ("Look at the time! We're late!" says Oxford's boyfriend, picking up an hour-glass), as well as clever allusions to Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. It's a tricky comedy, verbally dense yet narratively relaxed. It has its weedy patches, and at least one big scene wherein Elizabeth reveals herself to be a playwright reminds you that even in a low-down, bawdy comedy of literary manners, keeping it real (or, "real-ish") is smart.
That's clearly the guiding notion in director David Petrarca's handsome, somewhat plodding production. With its big, rolling set pieces and rhythmic steadiness, the staging lacks a certain propulsion. It's more stately than innately comic. Striving to fill the outsized Goodman proscenium, scenic designer Michael Yeargan plops a wooden expanse of barn above the actors' heads, and it's a visual bummer. Freed's nutty stylistic change-ups resist this sort of spectacle: At one point Harelik's de Vere refers to "the extra and unnecessary artifice" that separates poetry from prose. At times Petrarca's production goes in for too much of that artifice.
Still, it's an eyeful, and Freed's gleeful way with rhetoric and iambic-pentameter banter sparkles. Not that he's supposed to sparkle, but Campbell's Will is only adequate; we get too few variations on the theme of behind-the-beat doofus. Harelik has all the fun, and he's in ideal sync with Freed's text. His charismatic debauchery is a masterpiece of controlled excess, as well as a lesson in letting your late 16th Century wig do at least half the work. With his paradoxical macho flouncing, Harelik delivers a wonderfully judged series of double-takes and bed-dives and melancholic fits, all with enough panache for a John Barrymore convention.