The Beard of Avon (Portland Center Stage)

There is a tremendous amount of labor on display at the Gerding Theater in Amy Freed's shamelessly nerdy comedy about who might have

really

written (at least according to a fringe contingent of conspiracy-minded scholars and a handful of celebrity spokespersons—not unlike the Church of Scientology) the works attributed to William Shakespeare.

The hard work is evident in every element of the attractive production, from Deborah Trout's stunning Elizabethan costumes and William Bloodgood's handsome all-purpose set to the ensemble's excellent comedic execution and a refreshingly restrained performance by Darius Pierce (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Chandos portrait of Shakespeare).

But the hardest labor of all must have come from Freed, whose intricate script is both hilarious and stunningly ambitious. She knows her Shakespeare inside and out, and almost every line contains an allusion to one or another of the Bard's works. Her dialogue is quick, clever and brainy, carefully tailored to appeal to a self-congratulatory audience of lit majors and theater lovers. The plot manages to encompass just about every current theory of Shakespearian authorship. Even the play's construction is reminiscent of the Canon, speckled with asides, hyperbolic rhetoric and blank verse.

It must have taken ages to cram this much trivia and artifice into one script, and Freed creates a fine medley—but why bother? What value is there in stitching together these works? Beard is hardly a propaganda piece for the rabid supporters of the Earl of Oxford—Shakespeare is, by the end, vindicated as the real poetic talent—but it doesn't offer much in the way of moral or artistic satisfaction, either. Like the emperor's nightingale, it sings beautifully but has no heart—or, to borrow Ms. Freed's freely adaptive style, it's a tale told by an academic, full of in-jokes and bawdy humor, signifying nothing. BEN WATERHOUSE.

Tales of Ordinary Madness (CoHo Productions)

In the foreword to his production of Petr Zelenka's Czech hit, director and translator Stepán Simek notes the relative difficulty he had in getting the piece produced stateside. In a national industry where Chekhov is about as exotic as it gets, there is a general hesitancy about approaching anything from the former Eastern Bloc. But Zelenka's work, in which only one player officially goes to the madhouse, but where no one is above it, is a universal one. Simek has kept the crackling dialogue true to American diction, and, except for the occasional mention of Red history, what we have is good old-fashioned American-style dysfunction.

Peter (Brian Allard) is a beer-swilling thirtysomething who follows his shut-in and sexual deviant friend Midge's (an exuberantly goofy Shuhe Hawkins) black-magic advice to lure his girlfriend, Jeanette, back to him. Peter vacillates between midday delusions, watching his neighbors fuck (at their behest) and suffering through visits home, where his excitable mother (Dalene Young) donates blood obsessively and predicts her husband's (an endearingly meek Michael Chambers) downfall. Dad, meanwhile, plays with beer bubbles and bemoans his old career as a radio mouthpiece for the Party.

Playwright José Rivera once wrote that, when dealing in magical realism, you are only allowed to tell one lie. It's a disservice to classify Tales as mere magical realism (it's more of a surrealist, absurdist rom-com), but Zelenka stays true to Rivera's assertion: The "lie" is that inanimate objects can come to life, mostly to positive effect. But as everyone in Peter's world shows signs of cracking—making untoward confessions, professing love to complete strangers, screwing away grief—there is little call for suspension of disbelief. A truly theatrical act of desperation ties the madness up nicely, and anchoring performances by Young and Chambers (who are tasked with some of the most longstanding, and therefore, heaviest neuroses) provide a jarring few moments of heartbreak in the last act. SAUNDRA SORENSON.

SEE IT:
Tales of Ordinary Madness

: The CoHo Theatre, 2257 NW Raleigh St., 220-2646. 8 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Closes Feb. 23. $20-$23.

The Beard of Avon

: Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 pm Sundays. Alternates with

Twelfth Night

. See pcs.org for more details. Closes March 8. $16.50-$61.50.