High school kids typically encounter Shakespeare in an English class. A Shakespearean comedy is often staged outdoors in the summer. And, insightful comments from Shakespeare’s plays are quoted so often that some of the folks saying the witty words don’t even know they originated more than 400 years ago from the pen of an English playwright/poet who died in 1616.
But what if the plays of this great dramatist called the “Bard of Avon” had been lost or remembered incorrectly by players and printers? Why and how they have been saved as the 1623 First Folio is the subject of American playwright Lauren Gunderson’s “Book of Will.”
Gunderson goes back to when the King’s Men, the company that began as Lord Chamberlain’s Men (partly owned by Shakespeare) staged his plays. When the King’s Men hear of other players attempting to put on some of Shakespeare’s plays after his death and an unscrupulous printer trying to collect the plays, they decide to gather those works into one published book. The problem is that some of the plays can only be found as each actor’s script because Shakespeare preferred not to put it together until the actors were on stage, thus to prevent their theft. Also, some plays appeared to be lost, at least in the beginning.
Other problems range from finding a printer and paying for expensive paper to getting Ben Johnson, considered a long-winded, egotistical, rival writer, to do the preface because it would sell the book.
Tim Ocel’s direction pulls the different parts together so seamlessly that APT’s use of the aisles and Nathan Stuber’s double-stage design enhances the action. Ocel paces the actors’ timing so well that the difficulties to overcome don’t feel repetitive and the play beautifully flows from the why to the how and concludes with a celebratory ending where all of the actors are reading the all-important what. The acting is also exceptional.
The cast features seasoned APT actors Tracy Michelle Arnold as Rebecca Heminges and Shakespeare’s mistress, Lady Lanier, opposite James Ridge as husband John Heminges; plus Jim DeVita as Henry Condell opposite Colleen Madden as Elizabeth Condell.
Madden and Melisa Pereyra who plays the Heminges’ supposed bar-tending, ale-brewing daughter, Alice, have both played at Chicago Shakespeare. Long time APT actor Sarah Day is a charming Ann Hathaway. David Daniel is a funny, amorous Ben Johnson. However, the person likely to still be talked about after the show even though he dies early in the play is stage, TV and film actor, La Shawn Banks, as the famous Shakespearean actor Richard Burbage.
The main question heard after the show was how much is true? The answer is quite a bit. In the preface, Ben Johnson had a short note opposite a picture of Shakespeare that after mentioning his wit says “Reader, looke Not on his picture, but his Booke.”
In addition, actors John Heminge and Henrie Condell have a note in the preface explaining their actions saying “It had bene a thing, we confesse, worthie to have bene wished, that the author himselfe had lived to have set forth, and overseen his owne writings; but since it hath bin ordain’d otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envie his Friends, the office of their care, and paine, to have collected & publish’d them; and so to have publish’d them, as where (before) you were abused with diverse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious impostors, that expos’d them : even those, are now offer’d to your view cur’d, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he conceived them.”
However, kudos to Gunderson for her vivid portraits of the characters, how she had them interact and her two recommended endings – one used by Northlight as a projection torrent across the theater of Shakespeare’s works, and the one chosen by Ocel of the actors reading Shakespeare’s famous lines from all over the amphitheater.
Premiered at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in January 2017 and having its Chicago premiere at Northlight Theatre, Skokie that December, Gunderson’s remarkable play is now delighting audiences at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI.
Since conception in Washington D.C. in 1978 then moving and building a venue on a hilly, wooded site in Spring Green, APT has grown from a fledgling company in 1980 to number among the largest outdoor theaters in the U.S. dedicated to the classics, today. After seeing the exceptional production of “Book of Will,” opening night Aug. 17, 2019, it’s easy to understand APT’s success in drawing more than 100,000 to its 1089-seat outdoor amphitheater and the 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre.