What would the arts be like if William Shakespeare had never existed? Worse yet, if he had existed but no one in his time thought to preserve his collected brilliance for posterity? Saving Shakespeare’s legacy lies at the heart of Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will, which played Saturday, Aug. 17, in the Hill Theatre on American Players Theatre’s Spring Green campus. From so heady a theme comes one of the company’s funniest and most poignant plays of the season.
Aging actors Henry Condell (Jim DeVita) and John Heminges (James Ridge), members of the King’s Men acting troupe of which Shakespeare was originally a member, bemoan the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in current productions of their late colleague’s plays. Plagued by little money, no experience and incomplete and missing copies of the plays themselves, the pair set about in 1623 to publish what is now known as “The First Folio,” the first published compendium of Shakespeare’s works.
The task is monumental, but Gunderson mines this arcane bit of literary history with full doses of humor and heart, playing Condell’s energetic enthusiasm and Heminges’ overly cautious angst against a colorful cadre of 17th century English characters. The play features one of APT’s largest casts and showcases some of its most seasoned actors, many performing at the top of their game.
Condell’s nervous energy is kept in check by wife Elizabeth (Colleen Madden), while Heminges’ hesitant inaction is lovingly overridden by wife Rebecca (Tracy Michelle Arnold) and daughter Alice (Melisa Pereyra). The five together form the play’s emotional nucleus around which outrageous antics like those of bombastic actor Richard Burbage (La Shawn Banks) and raging drunken poet Ben Jonson (David Daniel) help swirl the narrative to a fevered pitch.
Director Tim Ocel, in turn, keeps everyone masterfully on track and moving ahead to a sublime conclusion in this excellent end-of-season production.