Imagine a world without Macbeth, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Taming of the Shrew or Julius Caesar. Before the publishing of Shakespeare’s anthologized plays in Folio format in 1623, these plays and many others had never appeared in print. Once the actors who originated these roles – and then anyone who remembered seeing them – had died, they risked being completely forgotten.
Following the death of iconic actor Richard Burbage, and still reeling from Shakespeare’s death three years earlier, the surviving senior members of the King’s Men acting company realize that without a herculean effort to amass the various scraps of surviving manuscripts, sides and prompt books, the works of Shakespeare could be lost to time entirely except for the unauthorized and inferior printings of a handful of his plays. The story of this compilation is brought to life at Round House in Lauren Gunderson’s vibrant play The Book of Will.
Lauren Gunderson’s ascendance is virtually unprecedented. At only 35, her plays dominate the contemporary regional theatre landscape; she was America’s most produced living playwright this year and last, especially impressive given she’s had zero Broadway productions and a lone off-Broadway run. Is this a sign that NYC’s theatrical hegemony is (finally) ending?
Her rather sudden success can be attributed to many factors. She’s prolific, consistent, writes down-to-earth dialogue rich with humor and wit, has a gift for writing sparkling characters, frequently addresses topics of science and history to draw in the casual or infrequent theatregoer, either features female leads or has strong female characters that are the match of the males, avoids overtly didactic themes and avant-garde theatrical devices, aiming squarely at an educated middle-class middlebrow audience. She’s not trying to destroy any theatrical paradigms or incite revolutions; apart from a timely and welcome focus on female-centered stories, Gunderson’s pretty much a theatrical traditionalist whose work is tailor-made for regional theatre.
Book Of Will, though a new play, has a sort of Golden Age of Hollywood feel to it; a fast-paced dialogue-driven, character-rich script painted in broad strokes, and aimed more at the heart than the head. It’s not written for Shakespeare scholars, but at the people who at least survived high school English class without being turned off to Shakespeare and might get a few of the many references. Like a classic movie (or a Paula Deen entree), it’s stuffed with generous helpings of corn, ham and cheese, aimed more for the casual diner than the foodie. Taken on its own terms, it’s very filling.
There are some obvious choices in the writing; the lead pair contrast in exactly the way we would expect, one is fiery and headstrong (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh’s Henry Condell) and the other circumspect and cautious (Todd Scofield’s John Heminges). They have supportive wives (Kimberly Gilbert and Marni Penning, respectively) that keep them grounded and on-task. There is the full complement of outsized personalities, wise dowagers, lovesick youths, and colorful supporting characters that one would expect from a period piece.
That said, this is far from pure fluff. The spectre of mortality looms ominously over the proceedings. Several characters face their metaphoric final curtain before the literal final curtain, and it is this mortality that drives the action.
And that’s the thing. With no true antagonist except the Grim Reaper, there’s not a lot of dramatic tension apart from nominal bureaucratic impedance, ego-stroking and pausing for introspection and mourning. It’s a certainty that the Folio will get published, and thus becomes less a Historical Comedy and more a documentary, and the momentum tends to stall toward the end as all the obstacles are checked off and the play glides to a halt instead of building to a climax.
The chief virtue of Ryan Rilette’s production is the all-star ensemble and the rich variety of vibrant characters they bring to life. They clearly are having a damn good time, playing off each other, cracking each other up, and reveling in the wordplay. Mitchell Hébert pulls off an admirable double act with his two larger than life characters, aging lead actor Richard Burbage and Shakespeare’s chief rival Ben Jonson; both roles give him the opportunity to devour scenery, and he seizes it fully.
The Book of Will
closes December 24, 2017
Details and tickets
Kimberly Gilbert and Marni Penning are joys to watch as Condell and Heminges’ wives and Michael Russotto’s scruples-challenged publisher William Jaggard is a marvellous creation. Brandon McCoy brings an exasperated energy to prompter Ed Knight and a grounded calm to Isaac Jaggard, while Christopher Michael Richardson’s scrivener Crane is as detailed and meticulous as his character.
Another draw is Paige Hathaway’s expansive set, strongly evocative of the Globe Theatre and rich with details like smoke-stains around the candle sconces, and Kendra Rai’s rich period costuming. Melissa Flaim’s dialect work reflects a wide range of backgrounds and regionalisms.
After seeing this play, if you are inspired to see the results of Heminges and Condell’s labors first-hand, head over to the Folger Shakespeare Library where they have a Folio under glass. Among my tribe, it’s the equivalent of viewing a holy relic.
The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Ryan Rilette. Cast: Todd Scofield (Heminges), Maboud Ebraminzadeh (Condell), Mitchell Hébert (Burbage/Jonson), Katie Kleiger (Alice Heminges etc), Marni Penning (Rebecca Heminges etc), Kimberly Gilbert (Elizabeth Condell etc), Brandon McCoy (Isaac Jaggard etc), Michael Russotto (William Jaggard etc), Christopher Michael Richardson (Crane etc), Cody LeRoy Wilson (Marcus etc). Assistant Director: Susannah Eig. Scenic Designer: Paige Hathaway. Lighting Designer: Jesse Belsky. Costume Designer: Kendra Rai. Sound Design/Composer: Matthew M Nielson. Dialect Coach: Melissa Flaim. Props Master: Kasey Hendricks. Dramaturg: Gabrielle Hoyt. Production Stage Manager: Che Wernsman. Produced by Round House Theatre. Review by John Geoffrion
– [for the record, I graduated with Brandon McCoy from the MFA acting class at CUA (where we studied under Melissa Flaim), and can attest from first-hand experience that he and Maboud E. are ruthless poker players.]