The Book of Will is a gift to Bardophiles, a peek at the imagined creation of Shakespeare’s First Folio.
The playwright, Lauren Gunderson, is the most produced living American playwright in 2017.
The result is light and engaging, yet more a history lesson than a robust play.
Don’t get me wrong – I got my Shax geek itch scratched hard to see how Will’s theater buds, John Heminges (Jim Ortlieb) and Henry Condell (Gregory Linington), might have conglomerated a ragtag collection of actors’ sides and prompt books, quartos (and possibly memorial reconstruction) to print the 36 plays of Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies* in 1623, seven years after the Bard’s death.
This was no mean feat in a world where “theater is lived, not kept,” among a population where “half can’t read and half have no money,” where the Groundlings declared pedestrian observations like “I always liked it when it rhymed.” Yet “publish or vanish” eventually, luckily for us, wins the day.
Gunderson knows her Shakes. She starts with a recitation of the “Bad Quarto” version of Hamlet’s, the world’s, most famous speech:
To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes
From there, we meet friends (Richard Burbage, the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Austin Tichenor in a dual role), frenemies (William Dick as Ben Jonson, with his panegyric “To the memory of my beloved, Mr. William Shakespeare and what he hath left us”), and the women, wives and daughters, hanging out in the tavern next to the theater.
There’s also another woman, the dramaturgical delight Emilia Lanier (McKinley Carter’s second role), the feminist poet (read “Eve’s Apology”!), novelist, and purported Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets in an appealing but odd encounter. (She claims “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” as her own.)
The respect for source material is deep, modern and fun. Jonson says of Shakespeare: “A poet of the heart beats a scholar.” While trying to fund the printing project, one notes, “there’s no such thing as a business that’s nonprofit.” Garrulous actors are advised, “speak NOT that speech, I pray you.”
The talented cast playing on the period, Globe-evocative boards (set by Richard and Jaqueline Penrod) are almost enough, but not quite, “as a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a codling when ’tis almost an apple.” My well-thumbed Folio facsimile is pleased to have a theatrical representation, but, ‘Sblood, there should be more matter with less art.
The Book of Will runs at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, Wednesdays-Sundays through December 17. Tickets are $30-81, and are available at 847-673-6300.
* And in case you’re interested (who wouldn’t be?!), here’s the Folio’s dedication/publishing travails/sales pitch:
To the great Variety of Readers.
From the most able, to him that can but spell: there you are number’d. We had rather you were weighed; especially, when the fate of all bookes depends upon your capacities and not of your heads alone, but of your purses. Well ! It is now publique, & you wil stand for your priviledges wee know : to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first. That doth best commend a Booke, the Stationer saies. Then, how odde soever your braines be, or your wisedomes, make your licence the same, and spare not. Judge your six-pen’orth, your shillings worth, your five shillings worth at a time, or higher, so you rise to the just rates, and welcome. But, whatever you do, Buy. Censure will not drive a Trade, or make the Jacke go. And though you be a Magistrate of wit, and sit on the Stage at Black-Friers, or the Cock-pit, to arraigne Playes dailie, know, these Playes have had their triall alreadie, and stood out all Appeales ; and do now come forth quitted rather by a Decree of Court, then any purchased letters of commendation.
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.
Who, as he was a happie imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers. But it is not our province, who onely gather his works, and give them you, to praise him. It is yours that reade him. And there we hope, to your divers capacities, you will finde enough, both to draw, and hold you: for his wit can no more lie hid, then it could be lost. Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe : And if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him. And so we leave you to other of his Friends, whom if you need, can be your guides: if you neede them not, you can lead yourselves, and others, and such readers we wish him.