Sunday, July 8, 2018

"The Book of Will"

The Book of Will
Lauren Gunderson


The Cast of The Book of Will
Imagine a world without Orlando, Banquo, Lady Macbeth, Rosylind, Caliban, Puck, or dozens of other Shakespearean characters who are our friends, even family.  But for the inspired insight, stubborn determination, and colossal efforts of a 1619, London bar owner and his best-friend actor – both the last, remaining leaders of Will’s group of actors called the King’s Men – most of the Bard’s beloved plays, stories, and persona would have vanished as soon as the actors of his time all died. 

Their rescue of partial and whole scripts hidden far and wide in the closets of actors’ widows, in actors’ boxes in their privies, or in the illegal possession of a former scribe is a story of adventure filled with much hilarity, some hubris, and tons of heart in a 2017 play by the prolific and popular playwright, Lauren Gunderson.  The Book of Will, now in its West Coast premiere at the 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is a captivating history lesson and an emotion-packed story of romance – the gripping romance between people of the theatre and a profession that is their lifeblood and raison d’êntre.

Kate Hurster, David Kelly, Richard Burbage & Jeffrey King
Over a few beers at the Globe House Tap, the three remaining leaders of the King’s Men – John Heminges, Henry Condell, and Richard Burbage – complain about the abomination of their dear friend’s plays, the deceased Will Shakespeare, on the local stages throughout London.  A recent Ophelia giggled all the way through the third act of Hamlet; a misguided troupe just staged Two Gentlemen of Antwerp; and a young actor was seen performing the most famous of Will’s soliloquies as “To be or not to be, aye that’s the point. To die, to sleep, is that all?  Aye, all.”

Their concern about Shakespeare’s words being massacred by unscrupulous theatre groups that are worried only about attracting paying audiences (at one penny per play admission) becomes even more real when one of the three cohorts -- Burbage, the leading man of the King’s Men -- suddenly dies.  With his dying breath evaporates many of the most famous parts (Coriolanus, Lear, Anthony) memorized only by him, but not printed for future actors to memorize. 

Henry has the audacious idea that they must find and publish all the works of Will, an idea John finds outlandish since the proposed Folio would be excessively huge and expensive (resembling the kind of over-sized books sometimes gracing our coffee tables today).  Even as John declares, “I love Will’s work, but it’s not the Bible,” Henry persuades him that it is “publish or vanish” for all the great characters and their histories, dramas, and comedies they both so dearly love, leaving the only real option to undergo the herculean undertaking.

Cast of The Book of Will
The Book of Will reveals the subsequent story of how these two former friends and actors of Shakespeare secure funding, find a willing printer, and more difficult yet, discover the whereabouts of scripts of the plays already seemingly lost in the three years since his death (amounting to half of Shakespeare’s works).  In a world where scripts were owned and closely held under lock and key not by the playwrights, but by the playhouses that premiered them, actors were only given their own parts in print, making finding an entire, reliable script almost impossible.

Lauren Gunderson has taken a history not well recorded and added details she has researched and those she has expanded based on her own intuition and imagination of what could have happened in the four years it took for the first Folio to appear.  She gives Henry Condell the persistently expressed passion and initial driving determination that David Kelly so ably exhibits as Henry in this OSF production.  He mourns daily the death of his friend, even after three years of Will’s passing, and becomes obsessed to turn that grief into action.  John, on the other hand, is more realistic and cautious, with Jeffrey King arguing to the point of stuttering to both Henry and his own wife, Rebecca why this venture can never work.

It is Rebecca that Lauren Gunderson has awarded the role of ensuring that John comes on board and stays on board of this near-impossible task.  She reminds him, “A theatre is an empty place ... It is filled up with words,” as she prods him to go find those words and print them, no matter the cost to their own lives. 

When suddenly she becomes sick and John is ready to give up the pursuit even as the first, complete Romeo and Juliet is rolling off the presses, she encourages him onward in the task from her bed, “I know Will’s words made you, John ... Return the favor.”  And as she slips away from this life, her last words to a husband who is curled up beside her – theirs clearly being a real-life love story that Will could have written – are, “When the world gets too dark to bear ... There’s light in the words.”  Kate Mulligan is magnificent at Rebecca Heminges and clearly makes Lauren Gunderson’s point that the men we remember today in our history books did not get onto those pages alone.

Henry’s wife, Elizabeth (jovially played by Catherine Castellanos), also becomes a mover-and-shaker in the scavenger-like hunt for scripts, even though she too is at first a skeptic and worried about finances that may never materialize.  Kate Hurster is the daughter of John and Rebecca, Alice Heminges, who is quick-of-wit, ambitious, and an astute manager of the entire process of seeing that the first book is actually printed.  The role of the women in assuring that Juliet, Cleopatra, Beatrice, and Portia would have their voices heard hundreds of years later is further amplified in Ms. Gunderson’s script by the crucial, financial contribution made by Emilia Bassano Lanier – the so-called Dark Lady of whom many of the Bard’s sonnets are supposedly written.  Catherine Castellanos also steps with flair, fashion, and firmness of spirit into the role of the mysterious woman who answers John’s call for help.

Cristofer Jean
But men of course also play important parts in aiding the two, former actors’ mission for printing and preservation.  Among other roles, Cristofer Jean is the keenly meticulous, devoted, and somewhat quirky scribe of the King’s Men, Ralph Crane, who performs miracles in finding scripts and in serving as a chief editor of the Folio.  Kevin Kenerly – who dies early on as Richard Burbage after first performing for us and his pals a moving Hamlet soliloquy – later plays the blind, cantankerous printer, William Jaggard, who in the end uses the fortune he had acquired publishing unauthorized (and mostly inaccurate) versions of Shakespeare, to fund the legitimate Folio. 

The use of his printing facilities and financial means comes into play due to his son, Issac (strongly and convincingly played by Jordan Barbour) who brings a fire and zeal for the printing of Shakespeare’s plays because he has spent his young life going to see all of them on stage, acted by the very likes of his favorite actors, Heminges, Condell, and the recently deceased Burbage.  (It is Issac Jaggard’s name – not his father’s -- that is today recorded on the remaining copies of the original Folio, as a result of a moving scene we see between him and a father for whom he actually has much contempt.)

Finally, the most unlikely man to provide a glowing Forward to the Folio – Ben Johnson, Shakespeare’s ongoing rival and late-night friend in the bars they both so loved – is given an almost larger-than-life portrayal by Daniel T. Parker.  The bombastic, egocentric, yet likable-by-a-chosen-few Poet Laureate of England is rarely without a drink in hand and never too far from a podium (even a bar stool) from which to ring forth his views and the value he places on himself.  Mr. Parker gives a deliciously fun portrayal, but one that also finds its way to deliver one of the evening’s most moving moments as Ben Johnson finally discovers why the world around him has so admired his once-rival.
David Kelly, Jeffrey King & Kate Mulligan

But the emotional peak of the evening, one that comes unexpectedly and that brings audible gasps and tears from audience, is ushered in by Kate Mulligan, now in the role of Anne Hathaway, widow of William Shakespeare.  Through the genius of Director Christopher Liam Moore – who already has proven time and again throughout the production of his astute skills to tell an important story with humor and heart – and the absolutely astounding videos and projections of Shawn Duan, we witness Anne Hathaway reviewing the first published Folio.  The words she, John, and Henry read come to life throughout the vast corners and nooks at every level of the Allen Elizabethan Theatre in ways that every audience member will recall for a long time, leaving us with the images of the lasting, global impacts that these lovers of theatre and Shakespeare continue to have on all of us, even four hundred years later.

Rating: 5 E

The Book of Will continues through October 13, 2018 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Jenny Graham

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