Some of us, given a time machine, might go back to observe dinosaurs or the grassy knoll or Marilyn Monroe. Maybe we'd seek out our distant ancestors, or taste life in another century. But then there are people such as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, and British schoolmaster J.T. Looney who would set the dials for Elizabethan England, bound and determined to find out once and for all who really wrote the plays we know as the works of William Shakespeare.
It's officially known as the Authorship Question, and while it's pretty abstract for most of us, some people are positively rabid about it. My library copy of Charles Hamilton's In Search of Shakespeare (250 pages of handwriting analysis, leading to the conclusion that Shakespeare was murdered) features the amusing marginalia: Dear Reader -- James Spedding was NOT a Baconian! To the Contrary -- He was much opposed to the Bacon/Shak____ Theory, as are ALL Bacon scholars! It's enough for now to know that there are two camps. On one side, the Orthodox; people who believe that William Shaksper, the "man from Stratford," glover's son, small businessman, husband of Anne Hathaway, and father of three children, is the real author. And then there are the Heretics, and they are legion and varied. We have Baconians, Derbyites, Rutlanders, Oxfordians, Groupists, Marlovians, and so on, ad infinitum, all of whom agree that the man from Stratford might well have been an actor in Shakespeare's plays, but not the author thereof. They don't agree on much else, though, and one can't count the trees that have been cut to advance the various theories of who the real author might have been.
Sir Sidney Chambers, the first character we meet in The Mysterious Mr. Looney, the new CentralWorks play, has been responsible for his fair share of dead trees. Author of the seminal Shakespeare: A Life, he has made a comfortable living for himself and his Spiritualist wife, Vera, through sales of his book, and is looking forward to further acclaim when he finishes his next tome on Shakespeare's "lost years," the period between Shakespeare's leaving Avon to make his fortune and the first time he is recorded as acting on the London stage.
But there's something rotten in Billesley Hall, the Chamberses' country estate in Avon. A phantasmic presence in the house is keeping Vera up nights, Sidney is getting cozy with the bottle, and more pages of his new book appear to be filling the fireplace than the out box. Enter earnest young schoolmaster John Thomas Looney, who has a new theory for Sidney and an eye for Vera, and things quickly go from bad to verse for the quibbling couple.
If you saw Amy Freed's The Beard of Avon at ACT back in 2002, you already know the theory that Looney proposes, namely that the plays were actually written by the dissolute Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Actually, Beard begins with the Oxfordian theory (the current front-runner) and shifts to the Groupist, namely that there was a conspiracy of writers (including even Queen Elizabeth!), all of whom were too concerned about their high positions to write openly for the theater. Beard was silly and madcap and probably more entertaining to people with a broad grasp of Shakespeare than not. Looney, by contrast, is intellectual and leisurely -- a pretty classic presentation of this old argument's two main schools of thought, although gussied up with a romantic conflict by writer Gary Graves.
There really was a J. Thomas Looney, played here by John Patrick Moore, and he really did publish Shakespeare Identified in 1920. Looney -- whose arguments satisfied Freud, among others -- developed his theory after repeated close contact with the plays convinced him that the author and the man from Stratford were two different people. Graves has Looney hit the high points. The man from Stratford couldn't have had either the knowledge or vocabulary boasted by the famous author. There isn't enough documentary evidence of Shakespeare's existence. Shakespeare's poems sound an awful lot like de Vere's. And so on. Sidney, played by the rubber-faced Christopher Herold, has his hands full refuting Looney until he starts to turn the spotlight on de Vere's true character. Not to mention that he risks losing Jan Zvaifler's delightfully over-the-top Vera to Looney's, well, looniness. The tennis match of a first act escalates until the tension is almost unbearable.
But the second act bogs down, even in spite of a comic strangling. As evidenced in Mata Hari, Graves will use as many words as it takes to get the job done, and occasionally a few more. The central conflict loses its drama; neither Sidney's protestations that he's going to call the police nor Looney's intransigence stay believable after the intermission. The interest in the second act lies more in the changes in the three characters and their relationships, and a surprise twist ending that's more of a surprise if you resist the urge to read over Zvaifler's shoulder.
Moore has filled out since his turn in last year's Mata Hari, but that can't be the only reason he seems to have gained some gravity. Other than a few bobbled lines the night I went, his performance was solid: his Looney was insidious and seductive, with a few touches of vulnerability to lighten the mix. While some of Moore's most interesting moments come when Looney is directly attacking Sidney's work ("The word doubtless appears 61 times in the first edition. I know; I've counted!"), there are some very hot sidelong glances between Looney and Vera.
If Moore's Looney represents the stiffly proper upper-class Englishman, Christopher Herold's Sidney fought his way up and isn't afraid of a little scrap now and again to maintain his position. Herold vibrates in comparison to Moore; physically, it seems as if his Sidney could go off at any time. And that's what the role requires, a man who can rage against the "anarchists and nihilists" who "want to smear Shakespeare" with all the passion of a class-conscious bloke who found himself an academic. Zvaifler rounds out the cast as batty Vera, who revels in long walks through the garden sighing over the Bard's writing.
Once again, CentralWorks turns the limitations of the Berkeley City Club stage to their advantage, adding only a desk, some books, and a great deal of crumpled paper to suggest Sidney's study. Tammy Berlin's costumes ably evoke the 1920s while reminding us how silly some of those shapes looked on human bodies. Sound designer Greg Scharpen digs into his seemingly bottomless bag of tricks to present some beautiful, haunting 16th-century French music as accompaniment to Looney's entrances and exits.
Even if questions about who really wrote Shakespeare's plays don't make you want to rush to the basement to start your time machine, The Mysterious Mr. Looney raises many of the controversy's most nagging questions in an intelligent and often funny way. And it rewards your endurance of the second act with a spooky answer that is most definitely not an Orthodox answer to the Authorship Question.
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